Analysis

Trump's Draining of the Terrorist Swamp

Will President Donald Trump include the Muslim Brotherhood on the U.S. list of terrorist groups? If so, how would that affect relations between Egypt and Turkey?

U.S. President Donald Trump signing an executive order January 30, 2017.
Carlos Barria/Reuters

The latest question preoccupying the Trump administration is whether to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group. After signing an executive order last Friday prohibiting the entry into the United States of citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries – and after declaring that he would permit torture, “because it works” – President Donald Trump is likely to fulfill the wish of Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi and turn the Egyptian president’s bitter rivals into terrorists, to be targeted the world over.

Trump’s problem is the need to prove that the organization really does engage in terror, not just that it’s a political enemy of the Egyptian regime. If he’s satisfied with the proof Egypt presents to him, he will have plenty of material to support his final decision. Then, though, he will have to deal with several difficult policy issues.

The first is the attitude of Turkey, which grants protection to the Islamist movement. It lets its activists broadcast on designated television channels, in which they describe the injustices of the Egyptian regime and activities of its army against civilians. Turkey also finances rebel militias in Syria which are affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, and sees them as future allies if and when a new regime is established in Syria.

The close ties between Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood is also the basis for the four-year diplomatic rift between Egypt and Turkey. Egyptian newspapers reported that when the U.S. president and Sissi spoke by phone after the former’s inauguration, Trump mentioned his support for the Egyptian president’s fight against terror – which indicates that he is also likely to assist in the battle against the Muslim Brotherhood.

But will Trump pressure Turkey to extradite activists to Egypt, as Sissi is demanding?

Turkey is likely to suggest a trade: In return for ceasing the Muslim Brotherhood’s activities in Turkey, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will demand that Trump extradite Fethullah Gulen (the religious preacher whom Erdogan accuses of planning last July’s attempted coup against him).

But in order for such a deal to be implemented, Egypt and Turkey will first have to restore relations. That would require full recognition by Erdogan of Sissi’s government. But Erdogan considers the Egyptian president an illegitimate ruler after he forcibly ousted the Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013. Sissi, meanwhile, would have to renew economic agreements with Turkey, which he scrapped about three years ago.

AP

It seems the chances of these developments occurring are slight. Both leaders are well-known for their stubbornness and large egos. But the invective they’ve hurled at each other in recent years is actually similar to that between Erdogan and Israel’s prime minister (until the recent reconciliation), so it’s been proven that curses don’t prevent reconciliation when there are strategic interests at stake.

After all, Erdogan reconciled not only with Israel but also Russia, which imposed tough sanctions on Turkey after it brought down a Russian fighter jet in November 2015. In addition, he also changed his tune regarding Syrian President Bashar Assad, whom he is now willing to accept as the Syrian leader during a transition period.

Egypt is important for Turkey not only because it invests about $5 billion in it: Egypt is also a bridgehead for the Turkish trade network into Africa. That’s also the main reason for Turkey’s importance to Egypt.

Turkish investments have acquired an excellent reputation in Middle Eastern countries, as well as in Iran and the Commonwealth of Independent States. Egypt desperately needs foreign investment in order to overcome its serious economic crisis, which includes major unemployment and large debts. A renewed alliance with Turkey won’t help Egypt with energy, since Turkey isn’t an oil producer. But it can provide the port to transfer oil that arrives from Russia and Iran.

The winds of change can perhaps be felt in this week’s planned visit to Cairo by a Turkish trade delegation, whose members will meet with senior Egyptian officials (including the industry minister). Heading the 10-strong Turkish delegation will be Rifat Hisarcikligolu, head of Turkey’s largest trade organization, which is an umbrella for most Turkish companies.

It’s true that a similar meeting in 2015 failed to yield diplomatic results – mainly because Erdogan metaphorically poked Sissi in the eye with a statuette of a hand with four raised fingers (the symbol of the Muslim Brotherhood), which was on his desk when the official photograph was taken. But apparently this time the visit enjoys the support of the Turkish president.

The stone thrown by Trump into the terror swamp may produce interesting diplomatic results. But where does that leave the war on terror? We can remain skeptical that including the Muslim Brotherhood on the list of terrorist organizations, or constructing a defensive wall around the United States to block the entry of Muslims, will prove beneficial.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the presidential palace in Ankara, January 27, 2017.
Yasin Bulbul/Presidential Palace/Handout via Reuters

After all, attacks in the United States and Europe were not perpetrated by the Muslim Brotherhood. In Egypt, too, most of the terrorist attacks were carried out by Al-Qaida or Islamic State activists.

It’s worth noting that Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan were omitted from the list of countries designated as harboring “radical Islamic terrorists,” and whose citizens are prohibited from entering the United States. This in spite of the fact that the 9/11 terrorists actually came from Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan is Al-Qaida’s base. The war on terror seemingly also benefits from political flexibility.