Veteran Arab journalist Abdel Bari Atwan speculates that the new US President Donald Trump will designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation.
In 1978, a few weeks after Egyptian president Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David accords, I interviewed the then-leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sheikh Omar al-Tilimsani. I tried my best to get him to issue a straightforward condemnation of the agreement and of Sadat’s prior visit to occupied Jerusalem. But he obfuscated, and avoided answering any of my questions on the matter.
Sensing my disappointment and dismay as a young journalist, he asked me to switch off my tape recorder and in a kindly, paternal tone said: “Son… I want to tell you two things. First, I will not say a word against Egypt and its regime while I am outside the country. Secondly, we are a missionary Islamic movement. Any clash with the regime would have dire consequences. These regimes have no mercy. The movement would be targeted. So we have to be patient and avoid confrontation to keep the movement going.”
Sheikh Omar’s words always remained in the back of my mind over the years as I observed political developments in Egypt and the way the Brotherhood would react to them – especially in the period before, during and after the January 2011 revolution.
Eventually, the powers-that-be in Egypt – with the support of a sizeable part of the population – decided to declare war on the Brothers. It forcibly deposed their government under elected President Muhammad Morsi, and threw him and most of the Brotherhood’s first and second tier leaders behind bars, sentencing many of them to life imprisonment or death.
On Wednesday, these powers went a big step further. The Cairo Criminal Court issued a ruling adding 1,052 individuals who it said belong to the Brotherhood – including Morsi, his entire family, the movement’s overall leader Muhammad Badie, and even the much-loved former international football star Muhammad Abu-Treika – to the authorities’ Terror List.
This means that their assets will be frozen, they are banned from travelling and will have their passports confiscated, and they are precluded from any employment in the public sector.
The Cairo public prosecutors’ department, meanwhile, referred 304 “suspects” – including leading Brotherhood figures currently based in Turkey – to trial before a military court on charges of organising groups that carried out terror attacks in Cairo and other Egyptian cities.
Such court rulings are not a surprise in themselves, but their timing is striking. It is probably no coincidence that they were issued just three days before the inauguration of Donald Trump as US president.
To put this in context, there have been persistent US and other news reports in recent days that the Trump administration might designate the Muslim Brotherhood with its branches in Egypt and various other countries, or its putative paramilitary wing, as terrorist organisations.
Trump himself is said to be leading this move, with support from key appointees such as the incoming Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, prospective CIA chief Mike Pompeo, and designated Defense Secretary James Mattis. Senator Ted Cruz is reportedly being tasked with drafting the necessary legislation for the new administration to present to Congress.
There are good reasons for taking this prospect seriously. The UK government’s report on the Brotherhood issued a year ago – at the behest of Gulf regimes that wanted it to outlaw the movement – used language that came close to accusing it of terrorism.
More recently, during his confirmation hearing, Tillerson spoke of how the destruction of ISIS (Trump’s declared priority) would be a first step toward overcoming other terrorist groups that threaten the US and its allies and enable it to focus on other radical Islamist organisations. In this regard, he named al-Qaida, various Iranian formations, and the Muslim Brotherhood.
According to news reports, the rationale to be cited for branding the Brotherhood as terrorist is that, as a trans-national organisation with a presence throughout the Middle East and Europe, it established the ideological infrastructure which led to the emergence of groups like al-Qaida and ISIS.
Trump has already established what can be described as a strong working partnership with his Egyptian counterpart Abdelfattah al-Sisi, based in part on shared hostility to radical Islamist groups.
It is no coincidence that when Trump called Sisi personally to ask him to withdraw Egypt’s sponsorship from a UN Security council resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity, the Egyptian president promptly complied.
2017 could be the year when the Brotherhood, the world’s longest-established and broadly spread Islamist organisation, is criminalised and consigned to the terrorist list. In my judgement, such a move would only strengthen the movement’s hardline wing — which is substantial and growing — that calls for a resort to violence to counter the repression it faces.
In the meantime, the movement needs to conduct a critical re-evaluation of the policies it has pursued and the positions it has taken in recent years, in order to learn lessons from past mistakes. It might find some of the observations made by Sheikh Tilimsani 40-odd years ago useful.