Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi had a “small” favor to ask of U.S. President Donald Trump when they met for an intimate chat on April 9: to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. Trump, who views Sissi as a key ally mainly because of Egypt’s close military cooperation with Israel and despite its concurrent flirtation with Russia, directed his national security adviser John Bolton to smile on Sissi’s request and find a way to impose sanctions on the Islamist political movement.
What is the Muslim Brotherhood?
The movement was established in 1928 in the Egyptian city of Ismailia by Hassan al-Banna, then a 24-year-old imam, who disseminated his principles in a series of pamphlets that were distributed to university students, in mosques and at clubs. Banna recognized the importance of participating in politics and using it to leverage the movement’s power and to promote its ideology of establishing a state that operated in accordance with religious law.
Political cooperation forced Banna to adopt Arab nationalism and the fight against colonial occupation in Egypt (and in all Arab states), which was both a local and a supranational struggle. Banna understood his movement’s main concern to be the local struggle, in a bid to bolster his public support at a time when Egypt was engaged in a battle over its identity.
This approach contradicted the movement’s core ideology, which saw nationalism as competing with the universality of Islam and with the idea of establishing a united Muslim nation, but this is where Banna’s pragmatism came into play. As he explained to his followers, “the circumstances” dictated operating with political astuteness and the political game was only a means to an end.
How does the Brotherhood operate?
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The Muslim Brotherhood is headed by the supreme guide, who oversees the secretary general and the Executive Office. District branches are funded by subdistrict and neighborhood branches. The principle guiding the group’s operations is religious teaching based on welfare activities, medical care and mutual aid to create loyalty to and dependence on the movement. The Muslim Brotherhood has branches in several Muslim countries. In some of these, such as Jordan and Tunisia, it has established political parties.
In Egypt itself the organization’s activities have been banned since 1954, but it has circumvented the prohibition by running independent candidates who, after winning parliamentary election, founded political factions that answered to the supreme guide. Egypt’s presidents, from Gamal Abdel Nasser to Anwar Sadat (who was presumably a member of the movement) to Hosni Mubarak, sought the support of the Muslim Brotherhood. These efforts failed, however, and were replaced by violent oppression of the movement’s leaders and members.
The Muslim Brotherhood and the Arab Spring
The organization’s younger activists, in particular, maintained close ties with leftist activists and some protest movements even before the Arab Spring broke out in 2011. In the early stages of the revolution the Brotherhood sat on the fence, even voicing support for Mubarak, but it went on to attempt to wrest control of the demonstrations. The organization eventually won the imprimatur of the revolutionary movements, which after Mubarak’s ouster successfully pressed for the Brotherhood’s legalization.
In the 2011 parliamentary election that followed the fall of Mubarak, the organization ran together with a number of secular protest movements and secured nearly half of the seats in parliament. In the 2012 presidential election, Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi won. The legislature, despite having been elected democratically, was dissolved after the country’s constitutional court found irregularities in the election process. Morsi remained in power, however, promising to honor all the agreements signed by previous governments, including the Camp David Accords.
But the authoritarian conduct of Morsi, who he also began issuing presidential decrees expanding his powers, led to the recognition that he meant to pursue a rigid religious agenda and spurred new demonstrations from opposition groups that failed in the election. These eventually led to his ouster by Sissi, his own military chief of staff and defense minister.
The Brotherhood and Sissi
Morsi’s violent fight against the Muslim Brotherhood and its designation as a terrorist organization stemmed mainly from apprehension over its public support; its political power, accrued over decades; and its status as the country’s most highly organized political movement, with a finger in every pie. In the course of this fight, dozens of the Brotherhood’s activists and leaders were killed and thousands were arrested; many of these were sentenced to death. Sissi succeeded in framing the movement as a terrorist organization that cooperated with Al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations operating in Sinai. He used state-controlled media outlets to sway the public conversation against it and he confiscated the movement’s assets. Sissi also convinced Saudi Arabia to designate the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, in exchange for agreeing to join the Arab coalition Riyadh was putting together for the war in Yemen.
Involvement in terror
Successive generations of Muslim Brotherhood leaders have declared its condemnation of terror actions and foundations as a religious and political organization. This stance led some activists to quit its ranks and to establish their terrorist organizations or to join existing ones.
In 1940, the Brotherhood created a quasi-military “secret apparatus” to fight the British occupation and any colonialist occupation of an Arab nation. Nasser, then a young commissioned officer, belonged to the group.
After Banna’s assassination, in February 1949, the group was disbanded by his successor and its members were absorbed into the Brotherhood’s administrative activities. There is no evidence that the organization has engaged in terrorist activities in or beyond Egypt for several decades. Descendants of the movement, however, such as Hamas in the territories and terrorist organizations in various Muslim countries, have adopted terror as a mode of operation, based on an independent interpretation of the teachings of Banna and of Sayyid Qutb, a prominent Muslim thinker and Brotherhood member who was executed in 1966 for plotting Nasser’s assassination.
Designation as a terrorist organization
Trump cannot designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization by fiat. U.S. intelligence organizations must first gather evidence of the organization’s involvement in terrorist activities that threatens the United States or its interests and present it to the secretary of state, who must consult with the attorney general and the treasury secretary before making the designation. After Congress is notified of the secretary’s intent, the Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives is given seven days to review the evidence and to block the designation or let it stand. If the designation is approved, the Muslim Brotherhood would have 30 days to appeal to a federal court in Washington.
Beyond the legal difficulty, the designation is liable to have implications for U.S. relations with states such as Turkey and Qatar which support the organization on both the religious and the political levels.