Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1330, (2 - 8 February 2017)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1330, (2 - 8 February 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Close to collapse

Confusion and panic in Muslim Brotherhood circles since Trump moved into the White House come on top of troubles the group is encountering in Turkey, Sudan and, of course, Egypt

Trump with British Prime Minister Theresa May at the White House on Friday
Trump with British Prime Minister Theresa May at the White House on Friday

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood failed to gather any support for a rally on 25 January. The day passed calmly, with Egyptians taking advantage of the extra day’s holiday which coincided with the mid-year school break. Apart from a few gatherings in alleys where participants gave the four-finger Rabaa salute, waved photos of deposed president Mohamed Morsi and shouted anti-government slogans, there were no marches or demonstrations.

In the US the crisis is serious. Donald Trump opened his electoral campaign on an anti-Islamist note which he sustained up to his win. Now lawmakers in Congress have begun to take action to have the Muslim Brotherhood declared a terrorist organisation. Ominously for the Muslim Brotherhood Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, equated the Muslim Brotherhood with the Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda in his Senate confirmation hearing.

“We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones and unite the civilised world against radical Islamic terrorism which we will eradicate from the face of the Earth,” said Trump in his inaugural address. Some analysts took this to include the Muslim Brotherhood. They pointed to Tillerson’s remarks during his congressional hearing two weeks earlier when he said the defeat of IS would allow the US “to increase our attention on other agents of radical Islam like Al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood and certain elements within Iran”.

This is consistent with the remarks by Walid Phares, one of Trump’s campaign advisers, who in November said the president-elect would work to pass legislation designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation. The idea of including the Muslim Brotherhood in the list of terrorist organisations is supported by other members of the Trump team, including his Defence Secretary James Mattis and his CIA Director Mike Pompeo. They are encouraged in this by the fact that other countries — Russia, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt — have already branded the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation.

It is noteworthy that the references have not been to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood but to the Muslim Brotherhood in general. This has precipitated unanticipated consequences. Officials from the embassies of Kuwait, Jordan, Morocco and Turkey — all important allies of the US — have lobbied against such a wide net approach. Jordan and Kuwait have pointed out that members of the local chapters of the Muslim Brotherhood in their countries are ministers in governments formed on the basis of free parliamentary elections. They have also stressed that the Muslim Brotherhood organisations in their countries do not use or encourage violence in the political process and that governments there have been happy to include the Muslim Brotherhood in the political arena. The governments of Turkey and Morocco, which some describe as thoroughly Islamist, contain officials who sympathise and identify with the Muslim Brotherhood even if they are not officially members of the group.

The ramifications of the bill will extend beyond Egypt and the Middle East. If passed it would affect dozens of American Muslim organisations. Many of these would find themselves in an awkward position because they are close to the Muslim Brotherhood and its various branches, or else have members who sympathise with it or are related in some way to Muslim Brotherhood members. A campaign to counter the bill, spearheaded by a number of US rights groups and including Islamic studies professors in some of the US’ top universities, is seeking to refute the allegations of terrorism being levelled against the Muslim Brotherhood.

Whether or not the Trump administration will press forward on this issue is still unclear. Officials or individuals close to the Trump team have indicated that some of Trump’s advisors, backed by long-serving national security and intelligence officials, diplomats and other officials, are urging prudence. They have warned of difficulties that will arise in enforcing the law and point out that in some countries the Muslim Brotherhood evolved peacefully. Others fear that the passage of the terrorist designation act would complicate relations with some of Washington’s allies, including Turkey, a major partner in the war against IS. They also note that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey came to power through democratic elections and that the Ennahda Party in Tunisia participates in the democratic process.

As Muslim Brotherhood members — locally and in the international organisation — hold their breath, Egyptian Islamists and Brothers who fled to Sudan are also facing trouble. In recent weeks the Sudanese authorities have taken measures to expel dozens of Egyptian members of the Brotherhood and Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya.

According to a Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya leader cited in Egyptian press reports Khartoum has expelled Egyptians “whose names are mentioned in investigations conducted by the Egyptian authorities or about whom Egypt has registered concern”. He added that Egyptian Islamists in Sudan “have received indirect messages from the [Sudanese] authorities that it would be advisable for them to leave Sudan. Some have already left to Malaysia, and others to Turkey”.

Some Muslim Brotherhood members in Turkey have begun to fear that the “neo-Ottoman sultan” there will turn against them. They have taken note of recent statements coming out of Ankara stating a desire “to increase friends and reduce enemies”. The Turkish foreign minister, noting how his country normalised relations with Russia and Israel last year, added: “God willing, there will be normalisation with Egypt and Syria… Turkey has started a serious attempt to normalise ties with Egypt and Syria.”

Although Cairo has reciprocated, its willingness to resume relations includes the condition that Turkey refrains from intervening in Egypt’s domestic affairs. The prospect of a detente between the two countries is reflected in a palpable change in tone in their respective media where the rhetoric is now less charged and antagonistic.

Muslim Brotherhood leaders, though they do expect some negative press coverage in the media, rule out the possibility of a clampdown on the part of either the Turkish or Qatari authorities. A Muslim Brotherhood leader who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity said: “For quite a while, even before the Qatari authorities took a decision to restrict the Muslim Brothers, the Muslim Brotherhood realised that its headquarters in Turkey and Qatar were only temporary.”

He noted that Muslim Brotherhood members were mostly located in the countries of Southeast Asia, while Britain remained the Muslim Brotherhood “capital” in Europe.

“The relationship between Britain and the Muslim Brotherhood organisation is a strategic one, unlike that between the Muslim Brotherhood and countries such as Turkey and Qatar.”

He explained that British governments have maintained close relations with Islamist groups since the great Arab uprising which, led by the Sharif and emir of Mecca King Hussein with British support, liberated Hejaz and the Levant from the Ottoman Empire. The Sharif Hussein founded the Hashemite Kingdom in Hejaz in 1916.

Although this source did not believe that Turkish authorities would expel Muslim Brotherhood leaders from Turkey he conceded the situation there was difficult and that several factors favour a Turkish-Egyptian rapprochement. The two countries need each other, he said, and neither can afford to ignore the other forever. There is also a general trend in Turkey to revise and reorient foreign policy, while in Egypt the regime of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi now enjoys regional and international recognition. In addition, Egypt and Turkey have common economic interests, including some, such as the maritime navigation agreement, that transcend any bilateral framework. Saudi Arabia is partners with both and wants to bring them back together. And then there are the common threats that both countries face. These factors, plus the relative stability of the regime in Egypt due to the weakness of the opposition and the absence of any ready alternative, all propel towards a rapprochement.

The situation is very tense for the Muslim Brotherhood, both for the Egyptian organisation and the international one. The controversial bill in the US, if passed, would be an earthquake for the organisation felt throughout the region and beyond. Expulsions by the Sudanese government have already shaken the group which sees yet another door that had once been open being shut in its face. Now the group sense is growing increasingly uneasy about the support it once received from Qatar and Turkey. Such developments, combined with completely closed horizons in Egypt, begs the question: “Is the Muslim Brotherhood on the brink of total collapse?”

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