U.S. President Donald J. Trump is urging the State Department to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization (FTO), returning to an idea his administration floated in 2017. The renewed interest follows the recent White House visit of Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who has forced the group from public life in Egypt.
National security officials, diplomats, and government lawyers reportedly object to the potential designation. They assert that the Muslim Brotherhood does not qualify as an FTO under the law, and that the designation will complicate American diplomacy in the many countries with political parties that have roots in the movement.
Meeting the Criteria
Sisi, who assumed office after overthrowing Muslim Brotherhood member Mohammed Morsi from the presidency, has branded the group a terrorist organization as part of a campaign to suppress critics of all stripes. He has been foremost among those calling for the designation.
The Trump administration, which has embraced Sisi, has yet to offer a public statement on what basis it might designate the Muslim Brotherhood, or on how broad the designation might be. The decision will be up to the secretary of state, but a designated group must meet three criteria:
- it is a foreign organization;
- it engages in terrorism, or has both the ability and intent to do so; and
- its terrorist activity threatens U.S. security.
As the blog Lawfare has noted, the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t seem to meet any of these criteria. The loose network encompasses movements and political parties across the Middle East and North Africa that vary in their doctrines and strategies. Nor do most of these groups advocate terrorism, which is characterized by U.S. law as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets.” In Egypt, the original Muslim Brotherhood group continues to renounce violence, even in the face of repression. Offshoots that do embrace violence include the Palestinian group Hamas, which is already designated an FTO.
Designations can be challenged in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which has the authority to block them. Congress also has the authority to overturn them.
The law prohibits U.S. citizens, or individuals subject to U.S. jurisdiction, from knowingly providing “material support or resources” to an FTO. Designated groups’ members, if not American citizens, can be barred from entry to the United States. The Treasury can block them from the U.S. banking system and order their assets frozen. With an FTO designation in place, U.S. diplomats could be constrained from meeting with Brotherhood-affiliated politicians and officials in countries across the region.
By designating the Muslim Brotherhood an FTO, the Trump administration would be following not just Egypt but also Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which view Islamist political parties as a challenge to their absolute monarchies and advocated the designation. In 2017, they cut diplomatic ties with neighboring Qatar, which they accused of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, and imposed an economic embargo.
Stigmatizing the Muslim Brotherhood could backfire, as regional expert Marc Lynch wrote in 2016. Islamist groups stymied from achieving their political goals through electoral politics could see some of their frustrated rank and file split off into more radical factions or defect to extremist groups. The Obama administration dealt with Islamist parties on the theory that encouraging their electoral participation would sideline groups such as al-Qaeda, though the Muslim Brotherhood’s participation in public life in many countries over several decades did not preclude the rise of extremist groups.
In the United States, civil libertarians have warned that the designation could be used to suppress Muslim advocacy groups, communal organizations, and charities, based on specious associations with the Muslim Brotherhood. The threat of criminal prosecutions based on “material support” could have a chilling effect on these groups, and they could also face the prospect of asset seizures.