Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, executive director of The RedLines Project, is a contributor to CNN where his columns won the Deadline Club Award for Best Opinion Writing. Author of “A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today,” and translator of “An Impossible Dream: Reagan, Gorbachev, and a World Without the Bomb,” he was formerly a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and CBS News. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Donald Trump is considering what could become the most significant and dangerous branding effort of his presidency: labeling the 91-year-old Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.
His motivation seems quite clear and simple, but still threatens to plunge America and much of the world that may still aspire to a peaceful and democratic Middle East into another spiral of hatred and division. With this one stroke, Trump would be playing directly into the hands of the same small band of Middle East dictators with whom he has cultivated strong bonds of friendship. At the same time, even his consideration of such an action should send chills up the spines of those who have long hoped for so much better for this strife-torn and deeply secular region. Yet, clearly, we could have seen this coming.
Since its founding, the Brotherhood’s ostensible home office has been Cairo, Egypt. The country’s current dictator, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, came to power by virtue of a military-led revolution that overthrew a Muslim Brotherhood-backed government, elected by the Egyptian people in 2012. The New York Times reported that the Trump administration’s decision to designate the Muslim Brotherhood came at the urging of el-Sisi. Hardly surprising given the Egyptian leader’s longstanding confrontation with the Brotherhood.
But the roots of this hatred go much further back to the earliest days of the founding of the Brotherhood in 1928 by an Islamic scholar, Hassan al-Banna.
Throughout its history, the Brotherhood has been resolutely Sunni, the dominant religious sect in the Middle East.
So one would have thought it would be embraced by any number of Sunni rulers, particularly the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia, which has spent decades battling Shiite minorities within its country. Not so, several Saudi scholars have pointed out to me. For these rulers, it served as a locus of a contrary and potentially challenging power to their own monolithic rule – the Arab street versus the ruling palaces.
So, it was hardly surprising that the Brotherhood emerged as a major force in the powerful Arab Spring movement that threatened to sweep dictators from power beginning in 2010 across North Africa and the Middle East.
Not surprisingly, it ran afoul of those dictators who managed to hang on – and who now clearly have Trump’s ear.
As Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi wrote shortly before his murder at the hands of Saudi assassins, “The eradication of the Muslim Brotherhood is nothing less than an abolition of democracy and a guarantee that Arabs will continue living under authoritarian and corrupt regimes.”
The roots of Trump’s antipathy date to the earliest days of his presidency. He sought, unsuccessfully, to ban all Muslims from a number of countries from entering the United States.
Then, not long afterwards, he headed off on his first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia where the rulers sought, quite successfully, to woo the new President with a lavish display of pomp and celebration, culminating in a sword dance in the royal palace.
Days later, a number of the nations closely tied to Saudi Arabia launched a virulent attack and blockade of one of its neighbors, Qatar, which incidentally happens to be one of the few authoritarian regimes to back the Brotherhood.
Banning the Brotherhood and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), or at least designating them terrorist organizations, with all the attendant economic and political penalties, has been a major theme of Trump since his first Mideast visit. On April 8, he succeeded in the IRGC designation.
But labeling the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization is an entirely different situation.
In much of the Middle East the Brotherhood is a direct representative and creation of the Arab street – potent populists, the very forces America should be supporting if the region is ever to move toward governments that favor democracy, freedom of speech and civil liberties. The Brotherhood is not ISIS, but the reality of their being deeply embedded in the societies where ISIS or other such organizations have sought to take hold could be of paramount value if we are ever to be able finally to take down ISIS wherever it may rise again. It is also hardly monolithic.
Moreover, human rights organizations have documented some violent human rights abuses by the Brotherhood or those affiliated with the organization, particularly during the time its supporters were in control in Egypt before el-Sisi seized power. The Brotherhood has branches in 70 countries, but all of the branches don’t operate under the same identity. This is what makes the designation Trump is contemplating legally problematic as the US law says a single group must be identified. And each must be clearly a terrorist organization directly threatening the United States.
We must hope that Trump has the good sense not to follow el-Sisi and others in the Middle East over yet another cliff. Already, Trump has personally offered his support to the Libyan rebel General Khalifa Haftar – backed by Egypt and Saudi Arabia – who is setting his sights on overthrowing the UN-backed government in Tripoli.
Trump must begin thinking for himself, particularly since national security advisor John Bolton, who believes in a far more muscular foreign policy than is either appropriate or safe in these parlous times, seems bent on edging the US toward armed conflict on the side of one tyrant or another.
And the President should be mindful that the Middle East peace plan orchestrated by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, two and a half years in the making, is about to be unveiled after Ramadan in early June. Turning the millions of the Arab street against the United States at this pivotal moment cannot be a useful tactic for winning acceptance of the Kushner-Trump plan.
Instead, it is time to recognize that we must turn the next page if we are ever to move toward a Middle East free from the kinds of challenges that will require a dangerous military solution.