The Trump administration is seeking to label the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization — a move that would allow the U.S. to impose broad sanctions against the Islamist group, which has millions of members across the Middle East.
But it could rattle U.S. relations with several allies in the region.
Experts say the plan could cut funding for humanitarian programs, weaken the validity of U.S. terrorism listings, project hostility toward Muslims and play into the whims of autocratic leaders.
“This would not be in the interest of the U.S., partly because I think the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t meet the criteria, and partly because I think it would cause various kinds of complications and potential problems,” said Anthony Dworkin, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
The plan was first reported by The New York Times and confirmed by White House press secretary Sarah Sanders. Sanders told the Times, “The president has consulted with his national security team and leaders in the region who share his concern, and this designation is working its way through the internal process.”
The White House declined to comment for this article. A State Department spokesperson said the department “doesn’t discuss deliberations or the potential deliberations of [its] designations process.”
The administration had weighed the idea as early as 2017 but ultimately dropped it as nonviable until President Donald Trump’s April 9 meeting with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. El-Sissi pushed the issue, according to The New York Times, and found a receptive ear.
El-Sissi’s government has cracked down on the group, which it views as a source of political opposition. Egypt, as well as U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have designated the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, saying the group’s ideology conflicts with that of a sovereign state, making it a threat to national security.
While el-Sissi was meeting with Trump, his son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner was getting pressure from the Saudis and UAE to revisit the idea, the Times reported. Several administration officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton, are reportedly on board as are other Trump advisors who have long considered the group radical.
The Brotherhood formally renounced violence in the 1970s after a long period of armed protest and assassinations. It now acts as a political party or has ties to politicians in several nations including U.S. allies Morocco, Tunisia and Jordan, as well as Qatar and Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a strong supporter. It was founded in 1928 in Egypt to promote Islamic law and oust colonial rule. The group is active in some 92 countries across the globe. Some offshoots of the group are considered terror organizations, including Hamas.
If the U.S. government were to use a broad definition of a terrorist organization to define the Brotherhood, “this would mean a complete reworking of how the U.S. does business in the Middle East and potentially in countries beyond the Middle East,” said Dana Stroul, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a previous senior staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where she covered the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey.
Observers say the move would be appeasing autocratic leaders who view the group as a threat to their power. Essentially, these governments want an endorsement and “getting the U.S. to buy into their narrative would be the victory,” Dworkin said. So, “the U.S. has nothing to gain, and some things to lose,” he said.
“The notion of designating the entire organization as a terrorist organization has been around for a very long time but has always been dismissed as not being viable,” said Stroul, adding that no one has been able to gather the evidence needed to do so.
The designation would brand elements of an ally’s government to be terrorists, which the U.S. has never done before, said Jonathan Schanzer, the senior vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and former terrorism finance analyst at the U.S. Treasury Department.
Schanzer was openly critical of the group’s ideology and teachings, and even called it “toxic,” but stopped short of endorsing the terror designation which he said would face legal challenges.
If the Muslim Brotherhood does get a State Department designation any group in the U.S. that meets with or continues to have any engagement with the Brotherhood opens itself up to legal liability in the U.S. courts.
Even countries that receive U.S. assistance for programs that promote active civil societies and democratic projects, including Tunisia, would be cut off from that funding if there was any contact with the group, Stroul explained.
“A broad designation could potentially mean that U.S. diplomats would be unable to engage with government officials in those countries where there are legitimate parties,” said Dworkin.
Not only would this make diplomacy and cooperation between the nations more difficult, but, at the very least, this would put a strain on those governments’ eagerness to cooperate with the U.S.
According to Dworkin, three complications would arise from such a designation.
It would devalue the significance of other U.S. terrorism listings if the label was applied in cases where evidence of terrorist activity was lacking.
The step would contribute to or endorse repressive political agendas carried out by regional actors cracking down on the group and not following human rights standards or due process.
It could contribute to the idea that the U.S. government is hostile to Muslims in general, as many people in the Middle East think the group is legitimate and do not buy into the narrative that its members are terrorists.
Dworkin said a secondary idea would limit the designation to the Egyptian branch of Muslim Brotherhood, which would get around some of those problems, “but it would be endorsing what I see as an oppressive political agenda.”