Last update: 2019-05-10 12:43:38
The idea is not new. Already in 2017 it was proposed to blacklist the Muslim Brotherhood and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO). It was the period in which Stephen Bannon and other exponents of the far-right website Breitbart were holding important positions in the Trump administration. Nothing came of it and in the meantime Bannon was removed from his posts in the White House. This year the events seem to have taken a different turn and on April 15 the pasdaran were actually included in the list of terrorist organizations. A few days later, the idea of doing the same with the Muslim Brotherhood came back. Apparently, the decision would require the termination of any relationship with people or organizations with explicit or implicit ties to the Ikhwan. So what should be the attitude of American universities or think tanks that are based in Doha, the capital symbol of support for this Islamist movement? What would happen to the American military base of Al Udeid, which would therefore be formally hosted by a state sponsoring terrorism? And how would Washington’s relationships with one of the most important NATO members change, meaning with Turkey which in its foreign policy often tandems with al-Thani’s Emirate? These are only a small part of the concrete – and bizarre – effects of possibly including the Brotherhood in the blacklist of the US State Department.
In addition to the doubts about the practical consequences of such a decision, one can ask on what basis the movement founded by Hasan al-Banna can be defined a terrorist group. American analyst Shadi Hamid recently said that no American Brotherhood expert would support this initiative. Thomas Hegghammer, one of the most prominent scholars of Islamist terrorism, echoed this, adding that even terrorism specialists would not do it:
I don’t think there is a single terrorism specialist who supports it either https://t.co/KyqgdnAEDM— Thomas Hegghammer (@Hegghammer) 1 maggio 2019
However, both the timing and the context of the proposal indicate that the stake is not so much an “academic” discussion on the presence or absence of the requirements to be defined terrorist, but rather the assertion of a particular (geo)political orientation, based on the ever closer alliance among the United States, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, followed by Egypt. It is no coincidence that the proposal re-emerged just after the bilateral agreement between Trump and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who sees the organization to which his predecessor Mohammed Morsi belonged as an existential threat. For this reason, Cairo fights it at home and abroad without shying away from highly repressive measures. Thus, it is difficult to understand the orientation of Trump presidency without framing the American administration and its keymen (Mike Pompeo, John Bolton) within the network of international alliances in which it seems to be increasingly involved.
While it is not yet clear whether this proposal will actually become operational, on the other side it allows us to get a glimpse at the direction in which some US allies would like to push Washington. The point is not to decide whether the Muslim Brotherhood has authoritarian tendencies, nor to determine whether their interpretation of Islam is compatible with liberal democracy. What’s truly at stake is the victory of the narrative (constantly used by regimes of various tendencies) that labels as “threat to stability” and as “terrorist” anyone who holds a political line “from below”, that may or may not be embraced, which could undermine the power of rulers – especially if it is articulated through Islamist claims, which is like smoke in the eyes for Saudis and Emirates.
The features of the conflict against the Brotherhood become particularly evident by observing the movements of the Gulf States in Libya and Sudan, to limit ourselves to the two cases heavily present in recent news. Immediately after the removal of Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese military junta received 3 billion dollars from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi as an aid. As Giorgio Cafiero and Kristian Coates Ulrichsen pointed out, this flow of money signals the will of the two capitals of the Arab peninsula to guide the transition to a new regime through the military, thus preventing the influence that the Muslim Brotherhood could exert on it. In Libya, with the help of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE (as well as France and Russia) General Khalifa Haftar is advancing precisely in the groove carved by the Gulf crisis of July 2017, fighting with Fayez al-Serraj’s government, which is defended by pro-Islamist militias and sponsored by Qatar and Turkey.
The support that Haftar receives from Abu Dhabi is not just material but, as shown by a tweet by Anwar Gargash, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs of the UAE, is based on the narrative scheme used by Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to justify repressive policies domestically and military actions abroad. A widespread refrain that roughly sounds like this: “we fight against extremism and terrorism to guarantee stability.”
Priority in Libya to counter extremism/ terrorism & support stability in long drawn out crisis. Abudhabi agreement offered opportunity to support UN led process. Meanwhile extremist militias continue to control Capital & derail search for political solution.— د. أنور قرقاش (@AnwarGargash) 2 maggio 2019
The message – Gulf strategists believe so – should take a hold on those Western governments that, extremely worried by terrorism and migratory flows, would be willing to turn a blind eye in front of repressive and aggressive policies. Looking at the choices of some western capitals, one may think that they are not too far from the goal. Could it be that al-Sisi, Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed will succeed where Bannon failed?