February 26, 2016

The Muslim Brotherhood, Terrorism and U.S. Policy

For more than 30 years, Muslim Brotherhood (MB) affiliated movements and parties have been a force for democratization and stability in the Middle East. MB affiliated parties promoted and contested elections in Muslim majority countries as far flung as Morocco and Indonesia.

The United States' official policy has been to encourage democratization and reform. For reasons of realpolitik and national interests, the United States maintains friendly relations with several autocratic regimes.


If the US designates the MB as an FTO, the signal sent to millions of Muslims is that the United States welcomes autocracy, but not democratization.
There is no credible evidence that MB affiliates are engaged in violence. A controversial review of the MB by the UK government, somewhat similar to a requirement under the Republican proposal, could not arrive at evidence of complicity in violence.

The Muslim Brotherhood has long been a strong opponent of oppressive dictatorships and radical Muslim extremists. It led the historic opposition to the regime of Bashar al-Asad's father in Syria and was the only organized opposition to Qaddafi in Libya. Today, groups associated with the Brotherhood provide support for the Saudi-US supported campaign against the Iranian-supported Houthi in the current conflict in Yemen, as well as opposing the branches of al-Qa'ida and IS/ISIS in that country. Legislation claiming to identify the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization would deny American policy makers access to an important resource in the war against IS/ISIS.

Putting the Muslim Brotherhood in the same general category as the so-called Islamic State (IS/ISIS) would be a victory for the extremists because it would take away from the United States an important resource in the battle against IS/ISIS. The defeat of the so-called Islamic State is a high priority for the United States. Success in this effort must be multi-dimensional. Direct military action is important in existing conflicts like those in Syria and Iraq, but the real defeat of IS/ISIS requires the ability to stop the organization's recruitment of people for their cause from around the world.

On Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016, the House Judiciary Committee voted to request that the State Department designates the MB as a terrorist organization. Votes are along party lines:  Republicans 17 yes, and 10 Democrats no.

This broader effort, like the military effort, requires strong and credible Muslim voices that represent the full spectrum of the global Muslim community. Actions that compete effectively with the IS/ISIS recruitment efforts go beyond the activities of old political establishments. The most effective refutations of IS/ISIS propaganda come from activist groups with religious credibility, like the Muslim Brotherhood, which has long opposed extremist militancy and is itself a target of extremist attacks. Indeed, both Al Qaeda and ISIS have criticized and condemned the Brotherhood's moderate approach and participation in mainstream and democratic electoral politics rather than advocating the violent revolutionary change in Egypt.

In the twenty-two month period since Egypt's July 2013 coup, there have been more than 700 attacks across Egypt compared to 90 attacks in the previous twenty-two months. Human Rights Watch has reported a figure of 41,000 political prisoners (mostly members of the Muslim Brotherhood), many of whom have been tortured. According to Amnesty International, Egypt issued 509 death sentences in 2014, the second highest number in the world.[i]

The number of young people radicalized by these events is difficult to measure. To the extent that anecdotal evidence, media reports and trends on social media are a reflection of this tendency, it is accurate to state that Egypt has become a breeding ground for radical Islamism. Marc Lynch has argued that, notwithstanding the Muslim Brotherhood's social conservatism and illiberalism, they performed an important role as a "firewall against extremism." [ii]

A politically active Egyptian with a religious identity could find expression in the public sphere by joining the Muslim Brotherhood and participating in electoral politics. Since the coup and the attempt to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood, this option no longer exists. The two choices that remain for Egyptian youth are: 1) to remain silent and accept the current neo-fascist order, or 2) to contemplate joining a utopian revolutionary political project such as ISIS. There is no third alternative.[iii] Tales from Egypt's notorious prison system confirm this argument.

Mohammad Soltan, an Egyptian-American, was twenty-five years old when he was arrested in the summer of 2013. He spent twenty-one months in jail; during sixteen of these months, Soltan was on a hunger strike. He lost 160 pounds, risking organ failure. When he emerged from prison he could not walk. In a special New York Times profile, he discussed the torture and brutality he faced but also revealed details of the internal political debates among prisoners: several of his cellmates were ISIS supporters.[iv]

"They walked around with a victorious air," he recalled. They would frequently point to supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and state: "look, you idiots, your model doesn't work." The ISIS supporters would then proceed to " make very simple arguments telling us that the world doesn't care about [democratic] values and only understands violence." He also noted that because "of the gravity of the situation [we] were all in, by the time the ISIS guys were finished speaking, everyone, the liberals, the Brotherhood people, would be left completely speechless. When you're in that type of situation and don't have many options left, for some people these kinds of ideas start to make sense."[v]
The US National Interest:
  • Designating the MB as an FTO breaks ranks with all democratic allies and aligns the United States with Russia, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Syria.

  • The US would be perceived as supporting and propping up entrenched Arab regimes and an Egyptian government that came to power through a coup and has engaged in widespread repression, violence and the violation of human rights as documented by major human rights organizations.

  • This would have a negative impact on the image of the US. It would reinforce the long held belief in the Arab and Muslim world and beyond that the US practices a double standard, "democratic exceptionalism," when it comes to the promotion of democracy, human rights, freedom of expression? Indeed, President George W. Bush, and his representatives Colin Powell and Richard Hass, made that very point in legitimating the US invasion and toppling of Saddam Hussein, acknowledging that US presidents, democrats and Republicans, had practiced democratic exceptionalism.

  • Failure to encourage a process of democratization and human rights by supporting mainstream civil society organizations and non-violent Islamic movements and political parties in the Arab world would play into the hands of terrorists who would use it in their recruitment etc.
Tunisia represents the one shining prospect for democratization and stability in the Middle East and provides an alternative model to that of Egypt, Syria, or Libya. Tunisia's Ennahda, the originally MB-inspired movement, is currently the largest political party in the Tunisian parliament.  Designating the MB as an FTO may have the problematic consequence of limiting US officials' interaction with arguably the most important prospect for democracy in the Middle East.

Rached Ghannouchi, Ennahda's leader, has observed that the "only way to 
truly defeat ISIS is to offer a better product to the millions of young Muslims in the world." It is called "Muslim democracy." He noted that that most "young people don't like ISIS - see how many millions flee from it - but they won't accept life under tyrants either." This "better product" must be a political system that is democratic, that respects human rights and that gives Islamic values political space. 

It is not a coincidence that ISIS emerged and attracted followers after the crushing of the Arab Spring, highlighting the relationship between democratization and violence. John F. Kennedy in 1962 articulated the simplest formulation of this insight in modern politics: "Those  who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable."

University Professor & Professor of Islamic Studies
Georgetown University School of Foreign Service
Washington, DC 20057-1052
(202) 687-8375 (Office)
(202) 687-8376 (Fax)

[i] Robert Kagan and Michelle Dunne, "Obama embraces the Nixon Doctrine in Egypt," Washington Post, April 3, 2015; Human Rights Watch, "Egypt: Human Rights in Sharp Decline," January 29, 2015, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/01/29/egypt-human-rights-sharp-decline; Amnesty International, "Death Sentences and Executions 2014," March 31, 2015, http://www.amnestyusa.org/research/reports/death-sentences-and-executions-2014.

[ii] Marc Lynch, "The endless recurrence of the clash of civilizations," The Monkey Cage (Washington Post blog) November 20, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2015/11/20/the-endless-recurrence-of-the-clash-of-civilizations/.

[iii] Borzou Daragahi, "The Arab Idealist who dies for ISIS," Financial Times, December 2, 2014; Emad Shahin, "Four Traits, Sisi, Hitler and Mussolini Have in Common," Middle East Eye, June 6, 2015, http://emadshahin.com/?p=1916.

[iv] David Kirkpatrick, "U.S. Citizen, Once Held in Egypt's Crackdown, Becomes Voices for Inmates," New York Times, August 28, 2015.

[v] Samira Shackle, "Mohammad Soltan, the Egyptian activist who spent 400 days on hunger strike in prison," The New Statesman, October 28, 2015, http://www.newstatesman.com/world/middle-east/2015/10/mohamed-soltan-egyptian-activist-who-spent-400-days-hunger-strike-prison and Murtaza Hussain, "ISIS Recruitment Thrives in Brutal Prisons Run by U.S.-backed Egypt," The Intercept, November 24, 2015, https://theintercept.com/2015/11/24/isis-recruitment-thrives-in-brutal-prisons-run-by-u-s-backed-egypt/.