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March 17, 2016

Designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a Terrorist Organization Risks Fueling More Terrorism

The effort to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, currently being pursued in the House of Representatives through a bill that passed through the House Judiciary Committee on a party line vote, is misguided. It would be harmful to U.S. national interests, and contribute to continuing and possibly escalating conflict and instability in Egypt and the broader Middle East region.

There is a debate within political Islam between those who advocate for peaceful, democratic politics and those who believe that violence is necessary and legitimate to achieve political objectives. The United States has a clear interest in Islamists committed to non-violence winning this debate and the Brotherhood and their associated political parties are its leading protagonists. 

Placing a blanket derogatory label on all Muslim Brotherhood supporters would weaken peaceful political movements in countries like Tunisia that are on the frontlines in struggles against violent extremists like ISIL. Non-violent Islamist democrats face violent attacks from extremists, and also fierce ideological opposition. They need support from the United States, not condemnation.

The tragic recent history of Egypt demonstrates the disastrous consequences of the state using violent, anti-democratic means to remove a democratically elected Islamist government.

  • Since the removal of the Morsi government in July 2013 the state has engaged in widespread, severe violations of human rights, including: the detention of tens of thousands of political prisoners, the killing of thousands of protesters and demonstrators, torture of detainees, wholesale denial of basic political freedoms of assembly, and more.
  • The repression has not only been directed against Muslim Brotherhood supporters, but other non-violent government critics have also been targeted, including young secular activists associated with the 2011 uprising.
  • The Sisi regime has increased pressure on independent civil society organizations, including human rights organizations. Human rights activists have received death threats and forced to live in exile. They have been subjected to arbitrary travel bans and criminal investigations are being aggressively pursued against leading organizations.
  • As a result of repression, and the jailing of much of the senior leadership of the Egyptian Brotherhood, younger leaders within the Brotherhood have become supporters of more aggressive tactics to overthrow the regime. So the lesson from Egypt is clear: repression and denying political freedom to the Brotherhood drives some of its supporters towards violence.
  • Tragically, incidents of terrorism are escalating in Egypt. Far from bringing stability, a strategy of repression has produced unprecedented levels of political violence.

Over the past year the Obama Administration has been advancing a new initiative to counter violent extremism (CVE), launched at a CVE Summit in Washington in February 2015.  A central purpose of this policy is to move towards a comprehensive, preventive approach to addressing the threat from violent extremism beyond a narrow focus on military and security-centric responses to terrorism.

A key element of the CVE strategy outlined by President Obama and elaborated by administration officials in subsequent months is the recognition that repression and denial of human rights create grievances which fuel violent extremism.

In short, poor governance and human rights violations are drivers of terrorism and violent extremism.

Human Rights First has welcomed this preventive approach and especially the emphasis on promoting and protecting human rights as a central part of effective counterterrorism strategy.

The efforts to have the Muslim Brotherhood designated as a terrorist organization are spearheaded by governments like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which are leading the pushback against political reform and democratic governance in the Arab region. Their involvement in denying the basic rights and freedoms of their own people and encouraging repression and authoritarianism throughout the region undermines multilateral efforts, led by the United States, to counter violent extremism. 

Promoting repression and denying human rights does not make the United States safer, it fuels instability and harms the interests of the United States and its allies.

The U.S. government should be critical of Muslim Brotherhood-linked political movements when they support policies that violate human rights. It should oppose any such parties or movements that reject the democratic process and advocate political violence. However, a blanket designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization would be unfeasible in practice and counterproductive, lending support to the violent elements within political Islam.