On April 30, President Donald Trump’s administration announced that it is working to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). This decision followed Trump’s meeting with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in the White House three weeks earlier. According to the White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, “this designation is working its way through the internal process.” At this point, it is unclear if or how such a blanket designation could be made given certain legal, pragmatic, and civil liberties factors. Nonetheless, if the US government moves forward with this terror designation of the Muslim Brotherhood writ large, there will be major international and domestic ramifications. 

News of this administration’s efforts to designate the Muslim Brotherhood comes as a major boost to some of America’s closest allies in the Middle East: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). These Arab states made this designation years ago and loathed the Obama administration’s perceived warmth toward the Islamist movement. Propaganda alleging that Obama was a “secret Islamist,” or even the Muslim Brotherhood’s “clandestine murshid,” or leader, has been common in Egypt since the coup of 2013. In fact, after Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, Trump,numerous figures from these Arab regimes voiced optimism about the incoming administration abandoning Obama’s perceived support for the Muslim Brotherhood and pushing to designate the movement as an FTO.

The laws in Egypt and other Arab states that ban the Muslim Brotherhood define terrorism so broadly that it encompasses essentially all forms of political opposition.

Egyptian, Emirati, and Saudi authorities have, under the guise of countering “terrorists,” targeted groups and individuals who have not even engaged in actual terrorism but have instead pushed ideas that these regimes maintain are responsible for fostering terrorism. Under US law, there are certain criteria for designating groups as terrorist organizations, and unquestionably this legal standard could not be met by simply pointing to ideas of groups, even if they could be reasonably understood as anti-western, hateful, illiberal, and intolerant. The laws in Egypt and other Arab states that ban the Muslim Brotherhood define terrorism so broadly that it encompasses essentially all forms of political opposition including secular, liberal, and non-violent elements. Undoubtedly, the US making this blanket designation (which to date no other Western government has done) would unquestionably serve as a stamp of approval for these Arab regimes’ crackdowns on “terrorism.”

In contrast to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, other Arab states such as Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia permit their countries’ local Muslim Brotherhood offshoots to function as a legal political party in their internal political arenas. Some of these “Muslim Brotherhood-friendly” governments in the region have requested that the US government avoid moving forward with this FTO designation. There are countless questions with no easy answers about how such a blanket designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization would add new layers of complexity to already complicated alliances that the US maintains with these Arab states which do not recognize the Muslim Brotherhood as a terror threat. 

The US adding the Muslim Brotherhood to the FTO list would be a big boost to Sisi, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. But it would also be a big boost to President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus who would see it as somewhat of a vindication of his regime’s killing of “terrorists” over the past eight years. Such a designation would fit into the Syrian regime’s narrative that it has been the Arab state most seriously committed to fighting terrorism—dating back to Hafez al-Assad’s gruesome conflict with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1970s and 1980s that killed tens of thousands of Syrians. Moreover, given that the Obama administration armed the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood during the earlier phases of the Syrian crisis, the US government making this designation would embolden the Damascus regime’s narrative about Syria being a victim of US-sponsored terrorism.

Domestic Factors

Domestically, this signals the White House’s alignment with agendas of certain Republican lawmakers who began pushing for this designation years ago. As illustrated by the text of the Muslim Brotherhood Terrorist Designation Act of 2015, which then-Congressman Mike Pompeo co-sponsored, there have been efforts on the part of American lawmakers (mainly Republicans) to link the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and other US-based Muslim advocacy groups to the Muslim Brotherhood. 

If the US government lists the world’s oldest Islamist movement, or even just the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, an FTO, the implications for US-based Muslim advocacy groups such as CAIR and the Muslim American Society (MAS) could be significant. Depending on the specifics of this terrorist designation, it is possible that American-Muslims will face setbacks in their civil liberties because of such a blanket designation. Given that Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-MN) has spoken at CAIR events, this designation would be seen by the American Right as confirmation of senseless allegations that the Somali-American lawmaker has ties to anti-American terrorist organizations and violent jihadist factions.

In 2014, the UAE classified CAIR, MAS, and scores of other Muslim groups that are based in a host of Western countries as terrorist organizations.

In 2014, the UAE classified CAIR, MAS, and scores of other Muslim groups (including the Cordoba Foundation in Britain, Islamic Association in Britain, and Union of Islamic Organizations of France to name a few) that are based in a host of Western countries as terrorist organizations. From Abu Dhabi’s perspective, these organizations are Muslim Brotherhood-affiliates set up across Europe and North America to shape Western states’ policies. The leadership in Abu Dhabi sees itself as taking the struggle against terrorism one step further than the US by categorizing CAIR and other Muslim advocacy groups in the West as extremists which North American and European governments should be targeting in the “war on terror.” 

In a Fox News interview shortly after the UAE announced these designations, the Emirati Foreign Minister stated: “Our threshold is quite low when we talk about extremism. We cannot accept incitement or funding when we look at some of these organizations. For many countries the definition of terrorist that you have [is] to carry a weapon and terrorize people. For us it’s far beyond that. We cannot tolerate even the smallest and tiniest amount of terrorism.”

Two years ago the administration looked at this question and then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson concluded that there was a lack of evidence to defend arguments in favor of pushing ahead with the designation. Perhaps with a presidential election next year, domestic political variables will drive Trump to continue pressing for this move against the Muslim Brotherhood, cynically tapping into Islamophobia in America. 

If the Trump administration decides to classify the Muslim Brotherhood as a terror group, such a move would mark a shift in how the US government goes about classifying entities as terrorist organizations. Such a designation would be based on ideological factors, not credible evidence of violent conduct. If Washington joins Abu Dhabi, Cairo, Damascus, and Riyadh in recognizing the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, it would add new complications and sources of friction to already tense relations with numerous US allies in the Middle East and North Africa whose governments are in part made up of members of this Islamist movement. A sweeping designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group would undermine efforts to work with Washington’s set of historic allies in the Arab world to confront the real threat of terrorism because the move could serve to alienate key allies in this struggle while pushing moderate Islamists toward extremist groups Islamic State and al-Qaeda. 

From an American standpoint, such a designation of the Muslim Brotherhood writ large as a terrorist organization could easily undermine vital US interests.

Ultimately, from an American standpoint, such a designation of the Muslim Brotherhood writ large as a terrorist organization could easily undermine vital US interests by creating new enemies and making it more difficult for America’s partners to support Washington’s counter-terrorism agendas. For example, in Kuwait the Muslim Brotherhood offshoot, Hadas, which is a political party in all but name, has been grateful to America’s role in the emirate’s liberation in 1991 and has never objected to the presence of US troops on Kuwaiti soil since the ejection of Iraqi forces 28 years ago. Where would a blanket designation of the Muslim Brotherhood writ large as an FTO leave Hadas? 

The US Department of State has already classified three Muslim Brotherhood offshoots as FTOs: Hamas, Harakat Sawa’d Misr (HASM), Liwa al-Thawra. These groups’ conduct did meet the legal standards for the FTO designation. Unquestionably, a blanket designation would almost inevitably create countless problems because the Muslim Brotherhood is a movement that is difficult to define given its lack of centralized leadership in the current era. Moreover, this move could undermine Washington’s efforts to counter actual terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. 

Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Libyan fighters from Mistrata coordinated with the US military in the fight against Islamic State in Sirte in late 2016, underscoring how at times the movement’s offshoots have aligned with Washington’s counter-terrorism efforts. Additionally, Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood branch, al-Islah, has allied with the Saudi-backed Yemeni government led by President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, which has worked with the US military in the Yemeni civil war. It is worth considering how a classification of the Muslim Brotherhood writ large would impact US interests in these Arab countries’ internal conflicts that Washington has intervened in during recent years. 

Placing the Muslim Brotherhood on the FTO list would be understood by many as a war on civic Islam that muddies our interpretation of what terrorism is, which, by definition, must entail violence on the part of non-state actors to achieve political objectives. Doubtless, this move would add legitimacy to this notion that propagation of certain ideas amount to terrorism. More dangerously for the Middle East, this designation could serve to embolden authoritarian regimes that are waging their own crackdowns on virtually all forms of dissent under the banner of protecting society from the Muslim Brotherhood.