Could Blacklisting Muslim Brotherhood Complicate US Diplomacy in Middle East?
By Sirwan Kajjo May 14, 2019
Designating Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization could pit the United States against new potential enemies in the Muslim world, experts say.
Analysts argue the designation could hamper U.S. Middle East diplomacy and efforts to promote democratic change in the region.
"For America to write off this important part of politics in the Middle East is really to hobble any kind of intellectual debate and the freedom of American diplomats to operate in this region," said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
"America is going to throw a major spanner [wrench] into the works of any kind of democratic and political evolution in the Middle East if it does this," he told VOA.
The reaction came after the White House recently said President Donald Trump is mulling over designating Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization.
"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," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in an email to reporters.
The U.S. announcement came nearly three weeks after a visit by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to the White House.
El-Sissi, who toppled former President Mohammed Morsi in 2013, has outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood and thrown Morsi and many of the group's leaders in jail.
Morsi was the first Muslim Brotherhood president who came to power after winning the 2012 presidential elections in Egypt. Morsi had led the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
But since assuming power, el-Sissi has been urging U.S. officials to label the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two Sunni powers in the Middle East, also have been lobbying Washington to designate the Islamist group.
During the first weeks of his administration in 2017, Trump had considered the designation but then dropped the idea.
The current U.S. national security team, however, has been in favor of targeting Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, some analysts charge.
"President Trump has got this new national security team with [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo and [National Security Adviser John] Bolton. This is a much more neo-conservative crowd than the first year of Trump's [presidency]," Mideast expert Landis said.
"So it's possible that they could actually entertain the idea of supporting Egypt, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates in sanctioning the Muslim Brotherhood and designating them," he added.
Fawzi Soufiane, a Tunisia-based expert on Islamist movements, says there are more radical groups in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East that the U.S. should consider targeting.
"For example, there are Salafis in Egypt who are much more radical than the Muslim Brotherhood. So clearly any potential designation of the Muslim Brotherhood won't be effective in terms of combating terrorism in the Middle East," he told VOA.
"The Muslim Brotherhood is perhaps the least violent group when it comes to the political spectrum of Islamist parties," Soufiane said.
The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928 in Egypt, is a social, religious and political organization that promotes a governance system run by Islamic law.
The Sunni Muslim group has dozens of affiliates across the Muslim world. Although it has used violence to achieve its political objectives in the past, the group currently eschews such actions.
But some experts believe that the Islamist group continues to promote its agendas through violence by aligning itself with more extremist organizations.
The Muslim Brotherhood "has been funding and supporting extremist groups through an extensive network of humanitarian and political organizations in Syria, Libya and elsewhere," said Majdi al-Daqaq, editor-in-chief of October magazine, a pro-government publication in Cairo.
"Even if we assumed that Muslim Brotherhood is not involved in armed violence, it is still active in promoting extremist political ideology throughout the region," he told VOA in a phone interview.
Al-Daqaq added that the Muslim Brotherhood "also has direct ties with the Palestinian militant group Hamas," which is a U.S.-designated terrorist organization.
Designating Egypt's oldest Islamist movement a foreign terrorist organization would allow Washington to impose sanctions on any individual or group with links to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Experts say targeting the group's financial networks overseas could undermine its activities in the Middle East.
"If the U.S. could target the Muslim Brotherhood leadership by sanctioning powerful individuals who have been working with the organization in Middle East, Europe and North America, then the group would be harmed significantly," said Shafeeq Mamdouh, a political commentator based in Alexandria, Egypt.
"This is a group that heavily relies on funding and donations from Muslim groups in and outside the Middle East. So their financial transactions abroad need to be disrupted," he added.
If the White House decides to label the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization, it must prove that the group engages in terrorist activity against the U.S. or its interests.
The secretary of state then would have to consult with the attorney general and the treasury secretary before making the designation official.
U.S. Congress would have seven days to review the designation, choosing either to block or allow it.
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