President Donald Trump wants to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. The administration had initially considered the designation shortly after inauguration in 2017, but quickly decided against it. This latest push appears to be the result of Trump’s meeting with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi three weeks ago, during which time the leader urged Trump to make the designation.
“The president has consulted with his national security team and leaders in the region who share his concern, and this designation is working its way through the internal process,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Tuesday.
But do the actions of this nearly century-old group support such a designation?
The criteria to designate an organization as a foreign terrorist organization requires that it engage in terrorist activity and that such activity “threatens the security of United States nationals or the national security of the United States.”
The biggest obstacle in meeting these criteria is that the Muslim Brotherhood is not a singular, cohesive body. There are some offshoots, such as Hamas in the Palestinian territories, that have in fact engaged in acts of terror. Hamas, and a handful of others, including two splinter groups from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, are already designated terrorist groups.
But when people talk about the “Muslim Brotherhood” they are first and foremost referring to the organization that began as a missionary movement in Egypt in 1928. The Egyptian branch did engage in political violence in the first decades following its founding, but renounced violence in the 1970s.
Then there are groups or political parties in other countries across the Middle East that are linked to or descended from the Muslim Brotherhood, and most of these eschew violence. In several instances, such as in Tunisia, the affiliated party not only participates in democratic politics, but the state is also a participant in the international coalition against the Islamic State group.
As such, it would be difficult to satisfy the legal definition for designating all offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization and potentially even harder to enforce such a designation.
The Trump administration has not clarified whether its designation would apply to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood or the broader network across the region. But the reason that el-Sissi, and some of his allies in countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates would want the designation is clear: they see the group as a threat to their political power.
Following the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Mohamed Morsi became the country’s first democratically-elected leader and the political party associated with the Muslim Brotherhood won nearly half of the seats in parliament. El-Sissi, a former general, helped lead a coup in 2013 to depose Morsi and has since overseen the arrest of thousands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Under his rule, el-Sissi has sought to pressure the U.S. and the U.K. to designate the group a terrorist organization, but they have repeatedly refused. The Bush and Obama administrations found a lack of evidence to support the designation. A December 2015 review by the British government came to a similar conclusion.
And the experts are in agreement.
William McCants, a scholar of militant Islamism at the Brookings Institution, wrote back in 2017 that “the Brotherhood as a whole, in several different respects, does not meet the criteria for designation under the statute. That’s why, despite pressure from governments like Egypt and the UAE over a protracted period of time, it has not been designated to date under any of the previous three administrations.”
Daniel Benjamin, the former coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department, agrees.
“State looked at this in 2017-2018 and concluded there was no legal basis for designation. That continues to be true. The admin is again, as with the IRGC move, warping the process for political purposes. It’s malpractice and ultimately dangerous,” he wrote on Twitter.
“We can disagree on whether the group is bad, authoritarian, illiberal…but on the specific issue of whether they meet the criteria for being an FTO, a foreign terrorist organization, the argument and the evidence simply aren’t there,” said Brookings senior fellow Shadi Hamid.
Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi put it in even starker terms in a piece he wrote just months before his murder: “The eradication of the Muslim Brotherhood is nothing less than an abolition of democracy and a guarantee that Arabs will continue living under authoritarian and corrupt regimes.”