Amongst the whirlwind of executive orders revealed this week by President Trump was a short report about his administration's intention of examining the possibility of designating the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the largest religious and political movements in the Arab world, as a terror organization. The move, experts say, could have serious effects on U.S. policy in the region, but could also satisfy America's allies in the Gulf.
News that the Trump administration was intending to ask the State Department to examine whether the Muslim Brotherhood should be designated a terror group was first report on Wednesday in the New York Times and on Thursday in the Wall Street Journal.
If the White House goes forward with such an order, it would constitute a drastic change in U.S. policy towards the movement, and Muslim-American organizations worry that it could also hurt their activities within the country.
Moreover, experts warn that such a designation could create future complications for the U.S. in the Middle East, while acknowledging that it would probably please a number of key U.S. allies in the immediate term.
The Obama administration's policy towards the Muslim Brotherhood over the last eight years was to engage with the movement if and when its members were elected into office. That policy, which to some extent continued that of the Bush administration's, was most evident in Egypt and Tunisia in the years following the Arab Spring, when the Brotherhood rose to power following democratic elections. Since then, the Brotherhood had lost power in both – in Tunisia through a subsequent election and in Egypt through a military takeover that led to the imprisonment of the movement's leadership, including former president Mohammad Morsi.
After the Egyptian military took back control of the country, it received massive financial support from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), two countries whose leaders view the Brotherhood as a potential threat and were more than happy to see the Brotherhood lose power in Cairo. In 2014, both countries designated the group as a terrorist organization. On the other hand, the Obama administration was critical of the Egyptian military's power grab, and even though it eventually accepted General Abdel-Fattah Al-Sissi after his election victory in June 2014, ties between Cairo and Washington remained cool.
Donald Trump's election victory seems to have brought with it the prospects of a new chapter between the White House and the current government in Cairo. On election night, it was reported that President Sissi was the first world leader to congratulate Trump for his victory. Sissi and Trump also met in September of last year on the sidelines of the 2016 UN General Assembly in New York (the Egyptian president also met Hillary Clinton on the same occasion). This week, the two spoke over the phone, and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said a visit to Washington by the Egyptian leader was on the agenda. The reports of a possible terror designation against the Brotherhood emerged 48 hours after that phone call.
Egypt and the U.A.E have been lobbying the U.S. government and members of Congress to promote such a designation. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) has taken a lead on the issue in Capitol Hill. A Trump executive order to examine such a designation by the State Department, however, could run into legal complications within the department, where legal experts would require hard evidence that the Brotherhood does not only incite religious hatred and encourage violence, but actively carries out terror operations.
Dan Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt under former President Bill Clinton, told Haaretz that 'it's obvious that some terrorist organizations should not be dealt with under any circumstances, but when you start to expand the list of these organizations to include groups like the Brotherhood, what happens is that you restrict the number of people you can talk to and work with.
"The larger this list becomes, the smaller the universe our diplomats and intelligence personnel can work with. The Muslim Brotherhood represents very large parts of societies in different Arab countries that we see as allies. Is it wise to completely cut off any possibility of communication with them? I think the answer to this question is obviously 'yes' when discussing groups like Al-Qaeda, but not when it comes to the Muslim Brotherhood." Kurtzer added that he had no doubt most of the professional rank within the State Department would advise against such a designation.
Dr. Eric Trager, a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Haaretz that "the Muslim Brotherhood is a totalitarian cult that seeks to implement its highly politicized interpretation of Islam, with the ultimate goal of establishing a global Islamic state that will challenge the West. It preaches hatred of religious minorities, as well as of Muslims who oppose it. The U.S. government should not be eager to deal with it, and the Obama administration’s policy of friendly engagement with the Brotherhood alienated some of our key partners in the region."
Trager, who recently published a book on the Brotherhood's short reign in Egypt ("Arab Fall: How the Muslim Brotherhood Won and Lost Egypt in 891 Days") added, however, that a terror designation could have some down-side effects that the administration should seriously consider before reaching any decisions.
"Washington can’t deal with an organization that it’s designated as a terror group, and conservatives should be hesitant to constrain American options like that, especially since certain Brotherhood-related groups, such as Ennahda Party in Tunisia, are central players within countries in which America has interests," he said. "Of course those Brotherhood groups that unambiguously practice terrorism should be designated as foreign terrorist organizations, much as Hamas was designated two decades ago."
Trump's nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, seems to be on the same page with the Brotherhood's opponents on this issue. During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Tillerson referred to the Brotherhood as an "agent of radical Islam," lumping it together with ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Tillerson didn't specifically discuss a terror designation, but his words left very little doubt as to what his opinion on this matter will be, if and when the question comes before the State Department.
Leading Muslim-American groups have voiced concern that such a designation would have a negative impact on Muslim-American organizations and also on private citizens who are involved in Muslim religious and communal activities. A spokesman for The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) told the Washington Post three weeks ago that a designation could possibly "be used as a pretext to essentially go into organizations, shut them down, and say, ‘We’re investigating them.’Years later, [they’ll say] ‘Oh, sorry, there’s nothing there.’ But the effect is, those organizations no longer exist.”
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