In late April, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that he would seek to have the State Department designate the Muslim Brotherhood a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). The directive came on the heels of a visit to the White House by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, one of Trump’s favorite autocrats and an enemy of the Brotherhood. Trump first directed the State Department to look into designating the Brotherhood in 2017, but it decided that the group did not meet the legal requirements of an FTO, since it is not a unitary organization and does not have an established pattern of violence.
The Brotherhood has not changed since then. Numerous loosely affiliated groups are lumped together under its heading, but they share no central command and few principles other than a broad devotion to Islam. The Brotherhood’s national chapters include organizations as diverse as the political party Ennahda, a pillar of the pro-democracy establishment in Tunisia, and the militant group Hamas, the terrorist organization in Gaza, which the United States has already designated. What has changed is the White House. Members of Trump’s administration who once objected to this move, including former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have mostly departed and been replaced by “yes men,” allowing Trump to ignore the legal and historical standards of FTO designations.
Because the move would ultimately be a favor to Sisi, Trump may end up targeting the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the group’s original and most famous chapter. Founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, the Egyptian Brotherhood has played a critical role as the de facto opposition to a series of Egyptian rulers. Although it was formally banned for decades, its influence in Egyptian society remained widespread. In the 1970s, the Egyptian Brotherhood forswore violence, and it has maintained that commitment ever since—no serious student of the group suggests otherwise. For that reason alone, an FTO designation would be extremely unlikely to hold up if challenged in court.
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