President Trump wants to designate the Muslim Brotherhood, an international Islamist movement, as a terrorist organization. The designation would impose sanctions on the group and those who do business with it.
Officials in the Pentagon and State Department have raised objections to the plan, saying that the Muslim Brotherhood does not meet the legal definition of a terrorist group and that its designation could have unintended consequences in allied countries where the Brotherhood fields prominent political parties.
The Muslim Brotherhood has frequently denounced terrorism and violence.
Here’s a brief guide.
What is the Muslim Brotherhood?
The Muslim Brotherhood is a missionary movement founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, a schoolteacher working in the town of Ismailia, near the Suez Canal. He argued that an Islamic religious revival would enable the Muslim world to catch up to the West and shake off colonial rule.
But he was sweeping and contradictory about the mission of the group, and largely avoided spelling out what an Islamic government might look like.
His teachings spread far beyond Egypt, and today widely varying Islamist political movements — including missionary, charitable and advocacy organizations as well as political parties in many countries — trace their roots to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Some of these groups use the name Muslim Brotherhood and others do not.
Political parties explicitly linked to or descended from the Muslim Brotherhood are recognized in many countries allied with the United States, including Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Morocco, Turkey and Tunisia.
Is the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood terrorist?
No. Even experts critical of the Brotherhood agree that the organization does not meet the criteria for a terrorist group.
Under the British-backed monarchy in the 1940s, the Egyptian Brotherhood was one of several factions to create paramilitary wings. In 1948, a 23-year-old veterinary student who belonged to the group assassinated the prime minister. Two weeks later, another member of the outfit was arrested for attempting to bomb a courthouse.
Mr. al-Banna denounced the perpetrators and their actions. “They are neither Brothers nor are they Muslims,” he said.
In the 1960s, a small circle of Muslim Brothers were arrested for plotting to reestablish an armed wing. That is when the Brotherhood formally codified its opposition to violence in a tract titled, “Preachers, Not Judges.”
Historians say there has been no evidence since then that the Egyptian Brotherhood, as an organization, has engaged in violence.
The government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has classified the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization and routinely accuses it of being behind terrorist attacks. The Brotherhood has consistently denied any involvement.
Since the military takeover of Egypt’s government in 2013, some members of the Brotherhood have broken off to form organizations that carry out acts of violence against the military-backed government.
Two of those groups, Hasm and Liwa al-Thawra, have been designated as terrorist organizations by the United States government.
Have branches of the Muslim Brotherhood outside of Egypt engaged in terrorism?
Yes. The militant Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, for one, is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas has carried out kidnappings, suicide bombings and rocket attacks on civilian targets, which the Muslim Brotherhood considers legitimate resistance to Israeli occupation. The United States has designated Hamas a terrorist organization.
Beyond that, the many Brotherhood affiliates around the world operate independently and identify only loosely with the Egyptian original, so it is difficult to speak categorically.
Is the Muslim Brotherhood related to groups like Al Qaeda?
Many people who are frustrated with the Muslim Brotherhood’s nonviolence have quit the group for more militant organizations such as Al Qaeda.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian who helped found and now leads Al Qaeda, is a former Brotherhood member. He wrote a book-length jeremiad called “The Bitter Harvest” denouncing the Brotherhood’s nonviolence, and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has consistently and repeatedly denounced Al Qaeda.
Does the Muslim Brotherhood support democracy?
Calls for democratic elections are now a hallmark of Muslim Brotherhood movements across the Arab world, putting them at odds with the authoritarian governments of the region as well as with more militant Islamists.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt began winning seats in the almost powerless Parliament in the 1980s, under President Hosni Mubarak. After his ouster in 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood won a plurality in Egypt’s first free parliamentary election and a senior figure in the group, Mohamed Morsi, won Egypt’s first free presidential election. But the military dissolved Parliament in 2012 and ousted Mr. Morsi in 2013.
After the Arab Spring uprising in Tunisia, a Brotherhood-style political party won the first free parliamentary elections there, then relinquished power peacefully after losing the next vote. The party, Ennahda, continues to play a major role in the legislature.
What is the argument for labeling the Muslim Brotherhood terrorist?
The main international advocates for the designation are Mr. el-Sisi of Egypt and his authoritarian allies in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Alarmed that Muslim Brotherhood parties might rise to power through elections, all three governments have cracked down on the Islamists and pressed their allies to do the same.
They argue that the Brotherhood’s Islamic ideology makes it a threat to the idea of the nation-state and thus a threat to the region’s stability. They also argue that the Brotherhood and Al Qaeda are essentially part of the same movement since both envision societies grounded in Islam.
The Trump White House had considered the designation during the first weeks of its administration in 2017 but dropped the idea. At a White House meeting three weeks ago, Mr. el-Sisi urged Mr. Trump to make the designation and Mr. Trump agreed that it made sense.
Britain, under pressure from its Persian Gulf allies, also investigated designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group but decided the group did not qualify.
Can President Trump simply declare the Muslim Brotherhood terrorist?
No. The administration must show that the Muslim Brotherhood engages in terrorist activity that threatens the United States or its interests. After counterterrorism agencies prepare written evidence, the secretary of state must consult with the attorney general and the treasury secretary before making a designation. Congress would have seven days to block it, and then the Muslim Brotherhood would have 30 days to appeal to a federal court in Washington.
But even experts who consider the Muslim Brotherhood sinister say that they have never seen enough evidence to convince a court that it was a terrorist group. The Saudis, Emiratis and Egyptians “do not understand the ins and outs of the U.S. system,” said Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, which has often criticized the Brotherhood.
Amr Darrag, a former official of the Morsi government who is now in exile in Istanbul, predicted that any court case would end in defeat for Mr. Trump.
“The designation may be bad for the Middle East, but it would be a big win for the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said, “a clear statement from a court that the Brotherhood is not a terrorist group.”
Orignially published in NYT.