Outlawing the Brotherhood reflects a total failure to understand the historical complexities of the group’s evolution.
The Trump administration is working to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign “terrorist” organisation, the White House said on Tuesday, which would bring sanctions against Egypt’s oldest Islamist movement.
“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.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi had urged US President Donald Trump to take the step during an April 9 visit to the White House, the New York Times reported on Tuesday, citing officials familiar with the matter.
After the meeting, Trump praised Sisi as a “great president,” as a bipartisan group of US politicians raised concerns about Sisi’s record on human rights.
In a statement on its website, the Muslim Brotherhood, or Ikhwan al-Muslimeen, dismissed the planned move, saying: “The Muslim Brotherhood will remain stronger – through God’s grace and power – than any decision.”
It added: “We will remain … steadfast in our work in accordance with our moderate and peaceful thinking and what we believe to be right, for honest and constructive cooperation to serve the communities in which we live, and humanity as a whole.”
Founded in Egypt in 1928, the Brotherhood is one of the oldest and most influential Islamic movements in the world. It came to power in Egypt’s first modern free election in 2012, a year after long-serving President Hosni Mubarak resigned amid a popular uprising.
The coup set in motion a violent crackdown against the organisation, with thousands of the group’s members arrested, and hundreds sentenced to death in what human rights groups have described as sham trials.
Two of Egypt’s closest allies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, also blacklisted the group but several western powers, including the United States, did not, for both legal and policy reasons.
However since Trump’s election, the Sisi government has repeatedly urged the US to designate the group, and in March 2017, Cairo sent dozens of parliamentarians, former diplomats and international law experts to Washington to convince the US of a ban.
The New York Times said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton supported the idea.
However, the Pentagon, career national security staff, government lawyers and diplomatic officials have voiced legal and policy objections, and have been scrambling to find a more limited step that would satisfy the White House.
The US State Department had previously advised against banning the movement because of its “loose-knit structure and far-flung political ties across the Middle East”.
Asked by reporters at the White House whether there were any concerns that designating the Muslim Brotherhood could create diplomatic complications for the administration because the group is so widespread, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway replied: “No.”
Daniel Benjamin, former counterterrorism coordinator at the State Department, said the department looked into designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization in 2017 and 2018 and concluded that there was no legal basis for a designation.
“That continues to be true,” tweeted Benjamin, who is now at Dartmouth College. He accused the Trump administration of “warping” the designation process for political reasons.
“It’s malpractice and ultimately dangerous,” Benjamin said in his tweet.
The Times said it was also unclear what the consequences would be for Americans and American humanitarian organisations linked to the Brotherhood.
According to a 2004 article by The Washington Post, supporters of the Brotherhood “make up the US Islamic community’s most organised force” by running hundreds of mosques and business ventures, promoting civic activities, and setting up American Islamic organisations to defend and promote Islam.
Human rights groups have also voiced concerns that el-Sisi might use it to justify an even harsher crackdown against his opponents.