One of the standard bearers of political Islam finds itself square in the White House's crosshairs. The Trump administration confirmed that it is weighing whether to designate the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that is prominent in politics and society throughout the Sunni world, as a foreign terrorist organization. If the United States were to add the Brotherhood to its list, it would join Russia, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates in doing so.
Such a move threatens to open a can of worms for the United States, however, not least because the group has so many incarnations — in so many countries — that it defies easy designation. More important, though, are the political difficulties Washington will create for itself in taking a firm stand against the Brotherhood: For while prominent foes of the group in Cairo, Riyadh and elsewhere will laud the move, the United States will struggle to work with the many regional governments that include Brotherhood-affiliated groups within their ranks.
In pursuing its policies in the Middle East and North Africa, the U.S. government has come to rely heavily on the strategic preferences of a handful of regional actors, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. As the White House again mulls whether to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization, the influence of these regional actors is evident in the White House's seemingly black-and-white approach to a complex issue.
Fulfilling the Criteria
Hassan al-Banna, a conservative Muslim thinker, formed the Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928. Nearly a century later, the organization's Egyptian branch continues to be the most prominent, yet it has also inspired or aligned with the thinking of countless other Islamist groups across the Muslim world that oppose Westernization and secularization to some degree: Some of these groups have a clear link with the original Egyptian Brotherhood; others do not.
In considering its course of action, the United States must decide whether the Brotherhood fulfills the legal definition of a foreign terrorist organization. To apply the designation, the U.S. State Department must confirm that the group is 1) foreign, 2) engages in terrorist activity and 3) is a danger to the United States. But other than the indisputable fact that the Brotherhood is a foreign organization, it doesn't easily conform to the other two characteristics. Ultimately, the United States will find it difficult to adopt a single policy for a political group with so many facets and branches, all of which have varying degrees of separation from the core group in Egypt.
Differences of opinion about violence within the Brotherhood will also complicate the United States' efforts to designate the group a terrorist organization. The core group and many of its affiliates continue to seek change through political and non-violent means, and there are parties in Turkey, Tunisia, Kuwait and Morocco, among others. In the main branch, politically oriented violence is not a core tenet of the Brotherhood's ideology; accordingly, the group possesses no armed forces. Indeed, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has not conducted a terrorist attack, which is technically a prerequisite for a foreign terrorist organization designation. Its more extreme leaders and branches have pushed for dramatic reformations of society from the inside out and from the top down — which partly explains why Muslim monarchies like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia perceive the group's ideology as such a threat.
In short, if the United States were to designate the organization a terrorist group, it would be sanctioning the governments of its allies.
At the same time, Brotherhood factions have emerged that support violence as a political tool — usually leading to spin-offs. In the most extreme case, the ideology has fueled groups such as al Qaeda, which draws on the same conservative Sunni ideology but takes it to a violent extreme. More moderately — and more aligned to the Brotherhood — the movement has spawned groups such as Hamas, which the United States lists as a terrorist organization. For Washington, however, the case for labeling Hamas as a terrorist entity was much more straightforward because the Palestinian group conducted and claimed responsbility for violent attacks against one of the United States' closest allies, Israel.
The Reach of the Brotherhood
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to Washington's plans is the presence of a large number of Brotherhood-affiliated or -inspired parties in administrations around the Middle East and the greater Muslim world. Depending on the country, these parties are extremely important members of the political landscape, often as popularly elected members of parliament. In some cases, authorities in Muslim countries, such as Morocco, have permitted the growth of Brotherhood-inspired parties so that they can provide a more moderate counterweight to more extreme strains.
A Counterproductive Measure?
If the United States were to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group, it would effectively be sanctioning the governments of its allies. There are many conflicts in the region (Yemen and Libya are just two examples) in which political Islamists are legitimate and critical parties to the discussion, as well as many partially democratic systems in which political Islamist groups operate as part of the government. U.S. allies including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and, especially, Egypt — which have long viewed the Brotherhood as an enemy to their system of governance — would welcome the designation and likely view the action as an indication of U.S. approval of other parts of their regional agendas. Others, including Turkey and Qatar, however, would express fury at such a move. Even more important, a sanctions designation, depending on its wording, could force U.S. government officials to restrict their travel or financial activity in countries in which a Brotherhood-affiliated group is active in the government. And for a country like Turkey, which is already embroiled in numerous diplomatic spats with the United States, the designation could spur yet another bilateral diplomatic crisis, possibly convincing Turkey to diversify its security partnerships beyond its traditionally Western base.
Another issue centers on the U.S. administration's balancing act between limiting regional actors from engaging in activity that — according to Washington — threatens U.S. security and supporting democratic developments and popular will in the region. This quandary dogged the Obama administration during the Arab Spring, which toppled a number of autocratic but friendly governments and paved the way for popular Islamist movements to join administrations after years in the shadows. Ultimately, the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups did not develop in a vacuum — they support values that a section of society espouses or wouldn't mind seeing reflected at the government level.
As times change and demographics shift, support for political Islam may wane.
Indeed, the recent Arab Youth Survey from Burston-Marsteller, a global public relations firm, suggests that many young Muslims across the region do not back Islamist groups as much as previous generations. For the moment, however, Islamist groups such as the Brotherhood retain a great deal of popular support among all segments of society in many countries. But as the popular elections in 2011 and 2012 in Egypt show, Islamist political parties — including those aligned with the Brotherhood — retain a sufficient degree of popularity among all segments of society to be a major political force. In the end, designating the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, thereby helping to narrow the space for legitimate political activity, could even fuel extremism as it would portray the American government as an enemy to Islam — the very narrative the White House says it is trying to fight. But even if such dire consequences don't come to pass, the United States could make its work in the region more difficult by taking an action that could shut it out of critical areas of the Muslim world.