BEIRUT — In 2012, then-US secretary of State Hillary Clinton was quoted as saying: “We believe… that it is in the interests of the United States to engage with all parties that are peaceful and committed to non-violence and we welcome, therefore, dialogue with those Muslim Brotherhood members who wish to talk with us.”
This was just months after the Brotherhood swept Egypt’s parliamentary elections and one of its leaders, Muhammad Morsi, became president. The United States dispatched Clinton to congratulate Morsi and even invited him to visit the White House.
Conservative American figures, such as Donald Trump, were dismayed. Trump wrote more than two dozen tweets criticising the Obama administration’s policy towards the Egyptian Brotherhood, saying: “This is a disaster.”
Five years later, in his inauguration address, Trump promised to strike at “radical Islamic terrorism” and “eradicate it from the face of the Earth”. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson likened the group to al-Qaeda.
The Trump administration has been seriously debating whether to designate the Brotherhood as a “terrorist organisation”, Tillerson has said.
The move has nevertheless been seriously questioned by members of the US National Security Council.
They see it as another knee-jerk reaction by Trump that can only ignite greater extremism in the Middle East on the grounds that the Muslim Brotherhood poses no direct threat to the United States and has never carried out terrorist operations on US territory.
Such a move would also create problems for the United States with regional allies such as Kuwait and Bahrain, which rely on local branches of the Brotherhood in their confrontation with Iran, and the Islamic Party of Iraq, another affiliate, which has worked closely with the Americans and stood up to Shia militias on the streets of Baghdad.
Other allies, such as Qatar and Turkey, host Brotherhood-affiliated organisations, including the Doha-based Al Jazeera TV, which is staffed by Brotherhood members and serves as a platform for its chief ideologue, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi.
Elsewhere, however, US allies are rejoicing at the proposed designation. It is music to the ears of officials in the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, who view the Brotherhood as no different from the Islamic State or al-Qaeda.
It would also be welcomed by Syria, whose government has been engaged in a bloody showdown with the Brotherhood’s Damascus branch since the mid-1960s.
Trump previously signalled his readiness to work with the Syrian regime in the war on terrorism and might find more room to cooperate on the Brotherhood, as was done after 9/11 when Syrian intelligence provided the FBI with dossiers on Syrian Brotherhood members who had fled the country in the 1980s and joined al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
Two parties that are especially alarmed by Trump’s Brotherhood decree are the Syrian opposition and their backers in Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has spared no effort to bankroll and support Brotherhood figures across the Arab world, spearheading the opposition to the 2013 military coup in Egypt that toppled Morsi, who was succeeded by former military chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as president.
The Syrian opposition is worried because its main representative, the Riyadh-backed High Negotiations Committee, includes members of the Syrian Brotherhood as does the Syrian National Coalition.
Since the Syrian conflict erupted in 2011, the Brotherhood has emerged as the most organised political group in the Syrian opposition and has been highly visible in all opposition delegations to the UN-mandated Geneva talks since 2014.
However, if Trump’s order passes, would it be possible at future sessions for Tillerson to sit at the same table with the Syrian Brotherhood, which has been sanctioned by US law?
For sure the Americans have done that in the past, most notably when they met members of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), an outlawed “terrorist organisation”, three decades ago.
US officials claimed they were conferring with them as individual Palestinians, not as members of the PLO but they knew that no peace deal with Israel would ever see the light of day if it was not signed off on by PLO leader Yasser Arafat and his organisation — something that does not apply today with the Syrian Brotherhood.
They can be shunted aside later, as more hands-on figures emerge from the Syrian battlefield, with greater clout and larger power bases — and willing to do business with the United States.
These figures also would not mind seeing an end to the Brotherhood, an ageing group that has condescendingly patronised them for six years. So, too, would old-school secular figures appalled by the Brotherhood’s ideological autocracy and hijacking of the Syrian opposition.
If the Trump decree does come to pass and — contrary to what many people might think, it just might — it could be a blessing in disguise for the Syrian opposition.
It would give its moderate members a golden opportunity to shrug off the Brotherhood and distance themselves from a group that has not only failed to deliver but also with whom public association has become bad public relations.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and frequent contributor to The Arab Weekly, The Huffington Post and The Washington Post.
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