Trump’s Designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a Terrorist Organization is a Grave Mistake

As the international community showed discontent to Trump’s recent designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization, a similar decision about the Muslim Brotherhood will also face criticism and create repercussions for the U.S.

Trump s Designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a Terrorist
Members of Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood and opposition parties shout slogans during a demonstration to protest against Israeli violations at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque, in Amman, on July 31, 2015. Getty Images

It has recently been reported that U.S. President Donald Trump is trying to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. Local sources related to the subject state that the necessary procedures are in the process of completion in order to finalize the decision. Such initiatives were also in place in 2016, 2017 and 2018, as a number of senators, including current Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, made attempts to declare the Muslim Brotherhood movement a terrorist organization. Such initiatives were not successful as the bills did not meet with the criteria of designation. During these attempts, the U.S. Secretary of State reported that there was no clear evidence that the Muslim Brotherhood was a terrorist organization.

As the efforts in the Senate did not realize the decision to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, this time, the president himself has taken the initiative to finalize the act. This process has clearly shown that there is a strong campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood among U.S. policy-making circles. It can be argued that the figures against the Muslim Brotherhood receive strong lobbying funds from anti-Brotherhood countries including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and most importantly, Egypt.

However, despite immense efforts and lobbying campaigns, these actors were not able to reach their goal. This also indicates that there is a strong resistance within the U.S. establishment that aims to prevent the decision to list the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. This resistance does not necessarily mean support for the Brotherhood, but rather is due to the negative repercussions that could amount from such a decision. Therefore, a number of policy circles that shape U.S. foreign policy, including the Pentagon, are trying to prevent such a decision from taking place. These actors argue that the legal and political implications of the act against the Muslim Brotherhood would have a negative impact on U.S. interests.

Figures working on declaring the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization receive strong lobbying funds from anti-Brotherhood countries including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt. 

Such a decision has the potential to cause serious political and social consequences for the United States. As former National Security Council Director on Egypt and Israel, Andrew Miller, argued, “the designation will consume huge energy of number of crucial agencies such as FBI, Intelligence Community and Treasury which will be expected to work on identifying persons and organizations related with the Muslim Brotherhood. This will reduce the time that these organizations will spare for other terrorist groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda that are already planning attacks on US subjects.” Miller also argued that Trump’s decision to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization as a political gesture for Cairo, Riyadh, and Abdu Dhabi, may have “real-world implications” for U.S. security.

Another repercussion of such a decision on the U.S. is related with the Muslim Brotherhood’s active engagements in U.S. social, political and intellectual life. Muslim Brotherhood affiliate organizations are the most organized groups among Muslims in the U.S. All these institutions are legal non-governmental civil society organizations that provide services in religion, education, health and other civic rights. By accusing members of these organizations with terrorism-related claims, the U.S. government will draw harsh criticism from Muslims not only within the U.S. but throughout the Muslim world. These U.S. citizens who are associated with the Muslim Brotherhood that will face criminal charges will significantly impact U.S. social life as a large number of these people are employed in political institutions, education, law and other sectors. In addition, the activity of many businessmen related to these organizations in the U.S. may also be damaged by the decision.

Trump’s decision to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization as a political gesture for Cairo, Riyadh, and Abdu Dhabi, may have “real-world implications” for U.S. security.

The designation decision would also have foreign policy repercussions for the U.S., particularly with its relations with countries that have a positive attitude towards the Muslim Brotherhood, including long-time allies Turkey and Qatar. With an already developing crisis with Turkey, the U.S. administration will allow for another area of confrontation with Ankara by designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. Since the start of the Arab revolutions in 2011, the Turkish government has been on positive terms with the Muslim Brotherhood mainly due to political calculations in regional politics. Turkey hosted Muslim Brotherhood members in exile and allowed for the organization to operate media organizations that had a very critical stance against the Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi regime, which is strongly supported by Donald Trump. Another country that would not welcome such a decision is Qatar. Doha has been considered as the most important supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East. At the same time, Doha hosts CENTCOM, a crucial U.S. institution in the region. Such a decision by Trump on the Muslim Brotherhood would thus create tension between Washington and Doha.

Finally, Trump’s decision to list the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorist organization may also create practical problems considering U.S. policy in the Middle East. The main problem in this regard is about the definition. The Muslim Brotherhood is a transnational civil movement that has branches in almost all countries in the Islamic world, particularly in the Middle East. In some countries the organization held (and still holds) political office. In Egypt, the movement played a crucial role in political life from 2011 to 2013. Muslim Brotherhood member Mohammad Morsi served as the first democratically elected president of the country from June 2012 to July 2013. The movement was, however, removed from the political scene in July 2013 with a military coup, which was supported by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

The U.S. administration cannot even sustain the decision to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.

In other countries such as Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, Tunisia, and Iraq, the Muslim Brotherhood established political parties that officially served as political actors. The movement, which has millions of members across the Middle East, advocated democratic political systems and adopted a moderate Islamic approach. Therefore, Trump’s decision to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization would create huge problems for Washington’s political actions in the region.

The decision to place the Muslim Brotherhood in the same category as Daesh, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and the PKK – groups that have been responsible for the killing of thousands of civilians – will be refused by the international community and will bring new criticism towards Washington. As the international community showed discontent to Trump’s recent designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization, a similar decision about the Muslim Brotherhood will also face criticism and create repercussions for the U.S. Therefore, it would be a serious mistake for the U.S. administration to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, if not because of all the abovementioned reasons, for the difficulties in sustaining such a decision.

İsmail Numan Telci
Ismail Numan Telci is the Deputy Director of the Middle East Institute (ORMER) and an Assistant Professor at the Department of International Relations at Sakarya University. He is the author of the ‘Dictionary of the Egyptian Revolution’ and is the editor of www.misirbulteni.com – a news webpage focusing on the developments in Egypt.