With the Trump administration considering designating it a terrorist organization and its members facing a wave of repression across the Muslim world, these are dark days for the world’s oldest Islamist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).
Founded in 1928 as a pan-Islamic, transnational religious and social movement in the Egyptian city of Ismailia, the MB also recently saw its most prominent leader, former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, die in handcuffs behind a glass cage in a Cairo courtroom.
He had been swept to power when the Brotherhood’s time appeared to have finally come, back in 2011, as uprisings rippled across the Arab world.
After those uprisings ousted longtime President Hosni Mubarak, Morsi became the country’s first democratically elected leader in 2012, signaling a break in decades of authoritarian rule and sparking hopes that Islamist groups could be folded into the political mainstream.
During the Mubarak years, the MB was both revered and reviled. It built a strong grassroots following with its charitable work and its influence quickly spread beyond Egypt. But the group was also viewed with widespread suspicion because of its Islamist political roots that rejected secularism. Although it was allowed to participate in Egyptian politics intermittently over the years, its members were also persecuted throughout Mubarak’s presidency.
After spending years as an underground organization, the MB — reluctantly at first — backed Egypt’s 2011 revolution. It initially pledged to stay out of the presidential race but eventually nominated its charismatic leader, Khairat el-Shater, to run for office. When Shater was disqualified from running, Morsi took his place, beating a challenger widely seen as a relic of the Mubarak era. As Morsi took charge in Egypt, other MB-associated groups also assumed leading positions in Tunisia, Jordan and Morocco, while receiving strong backing from Turkey and Qatar.
With existing MB-associated groups already in power in Sudan and the Gaza Strip, this made the organization one of the Arab world’s leading political groupings.
Now though, that impressive portfolio has been torn to shreds by the often-violent events of the last eight years (also see “Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood Struggles to Recover After Spectacular Fall” in the July 2015 issue).
“The Brotherhood is going through a period of intense flux,” Martyn Frampton, an expert on the group from London’s Queen Mary University, told The Washington Diplomat. “The period since 2013 has been a historic nadir for the group.”
In 2013, Morsi, who had barely been in office for a year following a narrow election victory, was overthrown in a military coup, backed by strong popular support.
An engineer by training and a largely unknown figure before being thrust into the presidency, Morsi was accused of bumbling the economy and concentrating power in the hands of Brotherhood, in part by trying to ram through a new Islamist constitution. But his supporters counter that Morsi worked to maintain good relations with the West and that his government was perpetually undermined behind the scenes by Egypt’s military and business elite.
After millions took to the streets to protest Morsi’s presidency, the military promptly stepped in. The coup saw hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters killed and was followed by mass arrests and the Brotherhood’s designation as a terrorist organization by the new regime of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Sisi has since cracked down on political opponents, notably anyone associated with the Muslim Brotherhood (thousands of whose sympathizers remain in jail) and pushed through a constitution that could keep the military strongman in power until 2030.
The remains of the Muslim Brotherhood have been driven underground or into exile, primarily in Turkey, Europe and Qatar. Meanwhile, Islamist-aligned parties in other nations have distanced themselves from the group or severed ties altogether.
In Jordan, the king himself had invited the MB to join the government in 2011, yet by 2013, the group had fragmented, its relationship with King Abdullah II had fallen apart and in 2015, the MB’s core was banned — although its political wing, the Islamic Action Front, remains the country’s largest opposition group.
In Tunisia, the Ennahda party, which had MB links and was elected to office in 2011, stepped down in January 2014 after a protracted political crisis, although the party continues to play a key role in the government.
In Morocco, the Justice and Development Party (PJD) won the most votes in 2011 elections. Yet given the rapid decline of the MB’s standing, it has since strongly denied any relationship with the Brotherhood, despite plenty of historical connections.
In fact, the PJD and Ennahda may have adopted a more conciliatory approach to governing in the wake of the Muslim Brotherhood’s downfall in Egypt, according to the July 2018 Brookings report “Islamist Parties in North Africa: A Comparative Analysis of Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt.”
“The PJD and Ennahda demonstrate that not all Islamist parties are intent on ruling unilaterally, or permanently. The PJD has forged multiple coalitions, and Ennahda turned power over to a technocratic government, compromised on constitutional issues, did not seek the presidency in 2014, and embraced its second-place finish in that year’s parliamentary elections,” wrote the report’s authors, Abel Abdel Ghafar and Bill Hess.
And while the report says that none of the three parties pursued a strict policy of Sharia law following their elections as some had feared, the Muslim Brotherhood “pursued a zero-sum approach that brought it into conflict with several actors in the Egyptian political system and ultimately led to its downfall.”
The Brotherhood has seen its influence wane in other parts of the region because of internal politics and changes.
In Sudan, Omar al-Bashir had been one of the first MB-supported leaders to take power, back in 1989, but he was recently overthrown. The future of the Sudanese Brotherhood — which now backs an agreement between the opposition that overthrew Bashir and the military — remains in question.
Hamas, meanwhile, was first established as an offshoot of the Egyptian Brotherhood during the First Intifada in 1987. Yet it too has distanced itself from the MB in recent years.
Setting out a key policy document in the Qatari capital of Doha in May 2017, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said that while his group was still part of the MB’s pan-Islamic “intellectual school,” it was now an entirely “independent Palestinian organization.”
The MB has thus become a group with few friends, with Turkey and Qatar the most prominent of those remaining.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) shares much of the MB’s Islamist outlook, although it grew from different roots. Erdoğan was one of the most outspoken supporters of the short-lived MB government in Egypt, while also developing links with Bashir’s Sudan.
Qatar, meanwhile, has long had a different relationship with the MB than that of other Gulf monarchies, namely the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
“In Qatar, the Brotherhood has a strong influence socially, through some very well-connected families, and in institutions such as the Ministry of Education and the Islamic foundations,” professor Courtney Freer of the London School of Economics, who has written widely on the Brotherhood, told The Washington Diplomat.
This influence has, however, enraged the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which, along with Egypt and Bahrain, broke off relations with Qatar in 2017 and launched a subsequent blockade.
Both the Saudis and Emiratis have made stamping out the Brotherhood a geopolitical objective. Followers and affiliates of the MB were initially welcomed by the two monarchies, but by the late ’80s, the conservative ruling families in Saudi Arabia and the UAE grew increasingly wary of political Islam, seeing it as an ideological and security threat. Members and sympathizers of the MB were arrested or sent into exile — a crackdown that intensified after the Arab Spring, when the UAE and Saudi Arabia supported the coup that overthrew Morsi (shortly afterward, both countries designated the MB a terrorist group).
Since the 2013 coup, many MB members have been living in exile in Europe, particularly the U.K., with the group attempting to position itself as the authoritative voice of the Muslim community via organizations such as the Muslim Council of Britain.
“This has also been their strategy elsewhere, in the U.S., France, Germany and other Western countries,” said Frampton. “It’s a form of identity politics, to become the authentic voice of the Muslim community, even though, of course, that community has many voices.”
Terrorists or Politicians?
After Sisi’s visit to the White House in April this year, President Trump announced that the U.S. would be reviving an earlier move, abandoned in 2017, to designate the MB a terrorist organization.
This designation is a process, most recently used by Trump in April to brand the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) of Iran as a “foreign terrorist organization” (FTO).
To receive the designation, a group must engage in terrorist activity — and such activity must “threaten the security of U.S. nationals or the national security of the U.S.”
Yet the MB has repeatedly renounced violence over its history, stressing that its methods must be peaceful. It typically organizes on a social, community level and mobilizes large numbers of people, rather than engaging in violent actions perpetrated by small groups, as a terrorist organization typically behaves.
“Can you link the MB to a single terrorist attack in the past?” asked Freer. While in its early years in Egypt it possessed an armed wing, “in 1969, the organization repudiated violence,” she said.
Many U.S. defense and diplomatic officials have also voiced concern about the legalities of the designation because the MB is not a single party or organization, but a loose association of similarly minded “chapters” in various countries, each of which pursues its own vision.
“Each chapter — in Egypt, Jordan, the U.S. or wherever — is able to set its own agenda and respond to the particular circumstances in which it finds itself,” said Frampton. “There is no Brotherhood International, setting a party line.”
A blanket designation could also ensnare many people and parties only loosely affiliated with the group.
“Sweepingly targeting the Muslim Brotherhood would create a cascade of diplomatic problems because political parties with Brotherhood roots serve in parliaments and even governments in many countries,” wrote Michele Dunne and Andrew Miller in a May 3 brief for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
They added that Muslims in the U.S. could also be unfairly targeted.
“Islamophobic groups — with contacts inside the Trump administration—would press the FBI to investigate every U.S. mosque or Muslim charity for possible ties to Muslim Brotherhood-supported hospitals, clinics, and religious organizations throughout the world,” they warned.
Moreover, they argued that the “Islamic State and al-Qaeda would celebrate such a designation as vindication of their argument that non-violent political activity is futile. They would use the designation in their efforts to recruit desperate and isolated Islamist youth, who once believed in peaceful politics.”
Yet, while the Muslim Brotherhood has ostensibly embraced political participation, doubts remain about the group’s commitment to nonviolence.
First, there is the Hamas connection, even though the Palestinian group now denies it is linked to the MB. Although it runs the Gaza Strip, Hamas is regarded as a terrorist group by the European Union, Canada, Israel, Japan, Jordan and the U.S., while other countries — such as the U.K., Australia and New Zealand — have banned its military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades.
“Saying the MB is nonviolent is problematic,” Frampton told us. “While they have embraced politics, the Brotherhood also believes in ‘resistance,’ in the case of occupation. So, they supported the insurgency against the U.S. and U.K. in Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan and they all support Hamas.”
(Since this article went to press, a car bomb exploded in central Cairo on Aug. 5, killing at least 20 people. Egyptian authorities blamed the attack to a group called Hasm, which has links to the Muslim Brotherhood.)
Then there are the former MB members who have gone on to lead unabashedly terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Other groups that have split off from the MB and taken up arms include Egypt’s Harakat Sawa’d Misr (HASM) and Liwa al-Thawra, which the U.S. already considers to be terrorist groups.
“Some people see the MB as a kind of gateway drug,” said Freer. “You start in the Brotherhood and become more and more radicalized.”
Yet al-Zawahiri has denounced the MB precisely for its nonviolent approach. Moreover, banning a group for what its former members may or may not do in the future clearly poses major legal challenges.
“I don’t think designation is the right answer,” Frampton said. “It’s too crude a device to deal with such a complex organization.”
Meanwhile, the MB itself recognizes that its fortunes have been waning, although it draws strength from its long history of advances and withdrawals, having survived numerous crackdowns throughout its 90 years of existence.
“This is not the first time the MB has been pushed under,” Freer pointed out. “There’s a general sense now that this is another period when they have to work underground, but that it is a cycle, and eventually things will change again.”
Yet this time around, there may be a more concerted effort by a multitude of players to crush the Brotherhood once and for all.
“For people like Sisi,” Frampton says, “this is an existential struggle. After what his regime did to them in 2013, they believe there can be no going back. Those now in power in Cairo think it’s either them or the Brotherhood.”
About the Author
Jonathan Gorvett (jpgorvett.com) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and a freelance journalist specializing in Near and Middle Eastern affairs.