The Cipher Brief sat down with Michele Dunne, Director and Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Center, to discuss the potential implications of the U.S. State Department designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. According to Dunne, such a move may actually backfire and “increase the threat of terrorism against Americans as well as Egyptians rather than diminish it.”

TCB: Historically, what role has the Muslim Brotherhood played in Egyptian society?

Michele Dunne
Dunne is an expert on political and economic change in Arab countries, particularly Egypt, as well as U.S. policy in the Middle East.
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Michele Dunne: The Muslim Brotherhood has been an important factor in Egypt’s society, political life, religious life, and educational institutions since its founding in 1928.  During some periods, the government tolerated the Brotherhood’s public activities as long as they remained within certain limits, but during other periods, the Brotherhood was harshly repressed.  That was notably the case from 1954, when the Brotherhood was accused of attempting to assassinate then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser, until the early 1970s. During the eras of former Egyptian Presidents Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak leading up to the 2011 uprising, the Brotherhood gradually rebuilt its membership, organizational structures, and range of activities (religious, educational, political), although it was never allowed to form its own political party.

TCB: What factors contributed to the movement’s rise to political prominence during the Arab Spring? 

MD: The Muslim Brotherhood as an organization was not part of the early demonstrations in January 2011, but it quickly seized the moment and threw its weight behind the growing call to depose Mubarak.  As the largest, most organized opposition movement – and one that had spent decades building constituents through provision of social services, such as health clinics and kindergartens – the Brotherhood was the best positioned to form a party and compete in Egypt’s first set of free elections, held in late 2011 and early 2012. 

In addition, the senior Egyptian military leaders who actually forced Mubarak out and took charge of the transition, worked closely with the Brotherhood in the first year or so after Mubarak, apparently viewing the group as a more reliable partner than the young secular revolutionaries.  But after the Brotherhood won a majority in the parliament and then the presidency, tensions began to develop between the Brotherhood and the military. President Mohamed Morsi, elected from the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in 2012, also governed in a controversial, majoritarian style that generated significant public dissent. 

TCB: How has the Egyptian government led by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood since taking control of in 2014?

MD: Current Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was Defense Minister in July 2013 when he led a coup against President Morsi that built on broad public unhappiness.  He was elected president in 2014.  Immediately at the time of the coup, Morsi and many other senior Brotherhood leaders were arrested.  The Brotherhood base protested vigorously, establishing two large sit-ins in Cairo, which were broken up by security forces in August 2013.  More than 1,000 people were killed in a single day. 

Since then, tens of thousands of Egyptian protestors have been detained, many but by no means all from the Brotherhood.  After a wave of violent protests, the Egyptian government outlawed the Brotherhood, declared it a terrorist organization, dissolved or took over more than 1,000 Brotherhood-affiliated non-governmental organizations, and confiscated the financial assets of many of the group’s members.  Sisi has also overseen a broad crackdown against non-Brotherhood critics, among them many of the young revolutionaries of 2011 as well as journalists and human rights activists.  

TCB: What is the Muslim Brotherhood’s current level of influence in the country? Could you see a reemergence of the group in the short-term?

MD: In a situation where there is no real political life or media freedom and where there are draconian penalties against demonstrations, it is hard to say.  The Brotherhood’s party won about half of the seats in the relatively free 2011 parliamentary elections, and about one quarter of the seats in the partially-free 2005 elections.  Not all of those votes came from hardcore supporters, but the results suggest there was a significant base.  The Brotherhood did re-emerge in the 1970s after having been banned for nearly 20 years, so it is reasonable to assume that it could emerge again.

TCB: How could the Trump Administration’s potential designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization impact the group moving forward?

MD: Since the Sisi-led coup, the Brotherhood (now in prison, exile, or underground) has been riven by a debate over strategy.  While the imprisoned leadership and exiled leaders in London have continued to insist on nonviolent resistance, young members in Egypt have ridiculed that stance and pressed for permission to use violence against the Sisi government.  The large terrorist incidents in Egypt since 2013 (many attacks in Sinai, the bombing of a Russian jet, a suicide bombing in a Cairo church) have been carried out by a group affiliated to ISIS that is an enemy of the Brotherhood. But there are rumors that some young Brotherhood members have joined other small militant groups that have attacked police officers, other officials, and infrastructure.  Designating all Muslim Brotherhood groups worldwide, or even just the entire Egyptian Brotherhood, to be terrorists based on the actions of a few might well push the debate over using violence in the wrong direction.  So it could actually increase the threat of terrorism against Americans as well as Egyptians rather than diminish it.

This interview was originally published by the Cipher Brief.