Middle Eastern autocrats old and new hardly ever tolerated dissent at home, and their crackdown on opposition has now officially gone global. The gruesome murder of Jamal Khassoghi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul showed how repression is no longer confined to the physical borders of states in the Middle East. But this global campaign is about to get on institutionally recognized footing, if President Donald Trump makes good on a promise he made in April to visiting Egyptian autocrat Abdel Fatah al Sisi.
At the behest of Sisi, the White House confirmed that the Trump administration is looking at ways to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. This decision will represent an invaluable gift from Trump. Not just to the Egyptian dictator, but to all of the Middle East’s authoritarian regimes, who fear the Muslim Brotherhood’s deep roots in society and demand for democracy more than they do its religious teachings—whatever they might be selling to the West. But for the U.S., this decision will also be politically self-defeating.
To begin with, the legal foundations for such a designation are shallow. Under U.S. law (specifically, under 8 U.S.C. § 1189(a),) in order for a group to be branded as a foreign terrorist organization it needs to meet the following criteria:
I. The organization is a foreign organization;
II. The organization engages in terrorist activity or retains the capability and intent to engage in terrorist activity or terrorism; and
III. The terrorist activity or terrorism of the organization threatens the security of the United States nationals or the national security of the United States.
It is clear that the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t meet the criteria that are laid out above. It isn’t only that the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t undertake violent actions against the U.S. interests: the movement renounced the violence long ago and repeatedly. (Notoriously, one group that originated from the Muslim Brotherhood – Hamas – does use violence, but this group is an outlier and its methods is defined by the dynamics of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict rather than Muslim Brotherhood’s ideological or political imperatives.) Apart from a few isolated, individual incidents, the Muslim Brotherhood didn’t turn to the violence even in the face of Sisi regime’s bloody massacres in the aftermath of the Egyptian coup of 2013.
On the top of this, group affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood are part of the political or governmental structures of many U.S.-allied countries, including Kuwait, Bahrain, Morocco and Jordan. The proposed blanket designation will render the U.S. relations with these countries problematic, to say the last. Will the U.S. also declare the government and political establishments of it allies as terrorist collaborators? The legal and political implications of such a decision is self-evident.
But apart from well-paid lobbyists and far-right ideologues, few are convinced that the entirety Muslim Brotherhood can be branded as a terrorist organization. Even scholars highly and constantly critical of the group—like Eric Trager—don’t think that the Muslim Brotherhood meets the criteria.
Moreover, this sweeping designation begs the question: If you can designate a non-violent organisation as terrorists, what is the criteria for distinguishing between a terrorist organization and an opposition group? This is precisely the distinction authoritarian regimes want to disappear. Devoid of socio-political legitimacy and failing to relate to their societies in any meaningful way, these regimes rely on hyper-securitizing the societies they rule and delegitimizing their political aspirations. Trump’s designation will embolden Arab dictators to label all of their dissidents as terrorists and declare them all illegal.
This would dramatically reduce an already shriveled public sphere, for any form of opposition, and this is precisely what such a ban by the U.S. would achieve. Given how embedded this particular group is within the socio-economic structure of Middle Eastern societies, the ban will engender wholesale securitization of these societies in one fell swoop.
Moreover, the ban will actually undermine, not reinforce, the U.S. campaign against terrorism. Devoid of legal justifications, this designation will be transparently ideological. Such arbitrary usage of the concept of terrorism will dramatically reduce its legitimacy and effectiveness. And it will provide a much-needed fuel to the narrative of many extremists groups, who argue that political change is only possible through violence, as opposed to the peaceful and gradual strategy of mainstream political Islamic groups, exemplified by the Muslim Brotherhood. Militants will be able to argue that the U.S. is now openly engaged in a war with Islam, not with extremism and terrorism.
Finally, it is unclear how to appropriately define the Muslim Brotherhood, which is a diffuse, diverse and loosely interlinked umbrella organization, if not a mere brand name. Political or policy coordination between different chapters and iterations of the group is virtually non-existent. It functions more as a meeting point for informal discussions and swapping of ideas and of experiences between different local branches who adhere to a similar political tradition. This umbrella organization doesn’t have any binding power over the local chapters. It’s role is advisory.
In fact, as argued by Nathan Brown, a respected scholar of Political Islam, the international organization of the Muslim Brotherhood resembles more the Socialist International, which serves as a platform for socialist and social democratic parties world-wide to exchange ideas and experiences, but not as a well-structured, hierarchical and disciplined organization that determines the political activities of its local chapters. In this respect, declaring the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization will be akin to declaring a brand name, an idea or ideology as terrorist. The illogical nature of such branding is self-evident.
By defying the logic of law (and of political sanity,) Trump administration wants the U.S. to join the company of Egypt, UAE, and Saudi Arabia, along Syria and Russia, in declaring Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Such a designation will satisfy the Arab dictators and far-right elements in the West. But it will serve neither U.S. interests nor the cause of the stability and constructive political change in the Middle East.
Galip Dalay is a visiting scholar at the University of Oxford and the IPC-Mercator Fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.