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The Future of Washington-Brotherhood Relations

Some observers have asserted that the victory of Democratic President Joe Biden will provide a way out for the Brotherhood organization by lifting off the pressures it has been enduring, with the new US administration being the heir of the administration of former president Barack Obama.

In this light, in late July, Biden’s administration chose Rashad Hussain, who is known for his association to the Brotherhood, as a nominee for Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. The move has raised a question concerning how the differences between the Republican and Democratic administrations affect the relations between Washington and the Brotherhood. 

This paper focuses on the relationship between Washington and the Brotherhood and demonstrates its development, in an attempt to see its future. 

Extended relations

According to his book “The killing of Hassan Al-Banna”, Mohsen Mohamed noted that, with the United States taking command of the Western Camp after the end of World War II, the first apparent communication between the United States and the Brotherhood began with a meeting between Hassan Al-Banna and Philip Erland, First Secretary of the US Embassy in Cairo on 29 August 1947. In this meeting, Al-Banna asked Washington to form a “joint office” of the Brotherhood members and Americans to fight communism.

In the 1950s, the Brotherhood’s relations with Washington have strengthened, as the US Embassy in Cairo sent the United States Department of State a letter to inform it of the Brotherhood’s proposal, concerning the participation of “Saeed Ramadan” (Al-Banna’s son-in-law) in Princeton University’s conference on Islamic Studies in the United States, which aimed at building an anti-Communist ground in the newly independent countries.

After this conference, the white house called on the participants, including Ramadan to meet the then US president, Dwight Eisenhower. Since then, Washington has allowed the Brotherhood elements to stay on its land. Thus, education became the best means for them to enter the USA. Within this context, American universities have received a noticeable number of Brotherhood students.

Despite these events taking place, most analyses indicated that the year 1982 is the beginning of the wide-scale communication between the US administration and Brotherhood leaders. Omar Al-Telmesany was received with momentum in his visit to the United States. After his return, at a meeting of the Guidance Bureau on 15 September 1985, he announced that the United States administration intends to support religious groups who are consistent with its policy in Afghanistan during that phase, through associations, and via its embassies in Islamic countries. At that stage, the Brotherhood began its activities in the United States, where they organized lobbies through the organizations they founded or the penetration of some research centers.

In a related context, the 1990s witnessed a development in the relations between Washington and the Brotherhood. The relations between President Clinton’s administration and the Brotherhood seemed to be more extensive as he leaned in favor of Bosnians and Albanians against Serbs. Not to mention his appointment of Abdul Rahman Al-Amoudi (a Brotherhood member of Eritrean descent) as a United States Department of State Ambassador of Goodwill for Islamic Countries. Al-Amoudi was also a frequent guest at the White House during the Clinton years in office. 

Within the same context, some reports mention that Hillary Clinton, invited some leaders of Islamic associations in the United States to attend a Ramadan Iftar event in 1996. In addition, there was controversy surrounding the “Clinton Foundation” hosting some Brotherhood figures, including engineer Jihad Al-Haddad, the son of the Brotherhood leader Essam Al-Haddad, a member of the Guidance Bureau. Besides, since Hillary was a senator and later the first lady, she appointed Huma Abedin as a personal aide. Furthermore, the cooperation between them continued when Hillary assumed the office of the Secretary of State until she was a candidate in the US 2016 presidential elections. Abedin is one of the most dangerous Brotherhood cadres in the United States, as she reached a high position in the Democratic Party. Some analyses find that Abedin is the link between the organization of the Brotherhood and the Democratic Party.

It is worth noting that the Brotherhood has worked hard to strengthen its relations with the United States, according to published documents on the empowerment plan (the Salsabil case 1991/1992), which is the group’s plan to seize power. The most dangerous thing the empowerment document presents is the Brotherhood’s vision and methods of dealing with global powers, especially the West and the United States of America. The document stresses the importance of notifying the West and the United States – in particular – that the Brotherhood does not represent a threat to their interests. In addition, it stresses that dealing With the Brotherhood is in the interest of the West, as it is a stable and disciplined power. 

The incident of September 11th is a crucial point in Washington’s relations with the Brotherhood. Washington realized, then, the need to open more effective channels with the currents of political Islam. These relations were priorities for the intellectual and research community in Washington, among them the Brookings Institution’s project on US policy towards the Islamic world, which included a group of periodic regional meetings and conferences. In its first conference in Doha in 2002,  a selection of American politicians and prominent Islamic leaders have attended, such as the former United States Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk, author Thomas Friedman, Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, and others.

Within this context, it is worth noting that the administration of President George Bush Jr. has hit a stalemate in dealing with this file. The strategy followed by his administration failed when it had relied on the military on one hand, and focused on the “democratization” on the other hand, which in return contributed to Islamists becoming at the forefront of the political scene in some countries. Therefore, the then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saw that the increased rate of extremism in the Middle East was due to the absence of channels and the narrowness of the political horizons.

Furthermore, some analyses indicate that the Bush administration has implemented a self-destructive contradictory strategy. It sought to impose democracy and change regimes in countries where political Islam currents – especially the Brotherhood – lead the opposition camp. It reinforced the growth of political Islam and its associated terrorist organizations, due to the polarizing discourse and the talk on preemptive war. Despite the apparent rejection of Islamic currents by the Bush administration, their momentum and strength increased. They were also involved in the political process that is led by Paul Bremer in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Not to mention the direct ties of the Bush administration with some Brotherhood figures since the launch of the election campaign. Sami Al-Erian organized a campaign in support of Bush during the elections in Florida mosques and elsewhere. He also worked on the appointment of Suhail Khan to the White House Public Liaison Office.

Subsequently, the Obama administration tried to overcome this shortcoming by differentiating between moderate and violent Islamic currents, while working on integrating and involving Islamic currents in the political scene. With the arrival of the Brotherhood to power in the wake of the January 25 revolution in 2011, Washington intensified its contacts with the Brotherhood, to expand the ground of mutual understandings, according to what was revealed by the leaked messages of the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at that time. However, the brotherhood failure led the people to remove them from power in the June 30, 2013 revolution, which led to the confusion of the US stance regarding the situation in Egypt.

The confusion and contradiction in the American policy towards Egypt were evident after designating the Brotherhood as a terrorist group in Egypt. Despite the intensification of violence and terrorism acts of the Brotherhood and its associated groups, the White House expressed, in 2014, that it is “deeply troubled” with the death sentence of 682 supporters of the Brotherhood, including the group’s General Guide, Mohamed Badie, and called for its annulment. 

During the first week of February 2014, the US State Department confirmed in a statement that communication between thE mbassy in Cairo and the Muslim Brotherhood group is still ongoing, under the pretext that Washington seeks dialogue with all parties of the political process in Egypt. It stressed that the United States does not classify the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. Therefore, relations remained tense between the Obama administration and the new regime in Egypt for a while, before understanding the real situation inside Egypt. 

The Brotherhood between Republican and Democratic administrations

The file of the relations between Washington and the Brotherhood has sparked off a wider debate in the current phase, particularly following the Democratic President Biden assuming office after the four-year controversial rule of Republican President Donald Trump. Within the framework of the current US Administration’s tendency to erase Trump’s inheritance, it has become crucial to focus on the differences between the two administrations, as follows:

For the Republican Party, President Donald Trump presented an example for the conservative current. Therefore, since assuming power, he adopted a right-wing nationalist discourse and a realistic policy of interest. Besides, the term (political Islam) came at the forefront of his policy, especially after the increasing popular rejection of him and his failure to engage in the political game. Meaning that the Trump stance concerning this file is an ideological one. On the other hand, Washington has strengthened ties with regional state actors, particularly Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt, who have designated the Brotherhood as a terrorist group. However, it took hesitant steps toward Qatar and Turkey, who support the Brotherhood. So, there was much talk about the Trump administration’s tendency to designate the Brotherhood as a terrorist group.

On July 11, 2018, the Congressional National Security Subcommittee organized a series of hearings on the “Global threat of the Brotherhood,” to identify the risks the Brotherhood poses to US interests around the world. The mainstream in the hearings tended towards Washington’s designation of the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, like other Islamist movements, such as Hezbollah and Hamas.

Speaking at a seminar at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in response to a question on whether the Trump administration intends to designate the Brotherhood as a terrorist group, saying that the Trump administration is still considering and evaluating the move to ensure that it is done “correctly.” However, after Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi visited Washington in April 2019, the White House directed national security officials to pursue the designation of the “Brotherhood” as a terrorist group.

Nevertheless, it seems that the Trump administration had to postpone this decision for several reasons. The first is due to the influence of the pro-Brotherhood lobbies. The second is due to the pressures of some organizations such as Human Rights Watch, which consider the Brotherhood a political and social movement. The third is due to the different views of the American elites concerning the Brotherhood, where some see them as a moderate group and others see them as an extremist group. The fourth is due to the political money of the Brotherhood, which tries to influence the American media’s stance towards the group.

As for the Democratic Party, most analyses emphasize the existence of warmer channels of communication between the Brotherhood and the Democrats, based on the flexibility shown by the administration of Bill Clinton and his spouse with the figures of this current. Besides, the policies of the Obama administration had no rejection of the acceding of political Islam to power. Thus, during the 2020 presidential elections, some reports indicate that Brotherhood cadres present in the United States have strengthened their network of relations with the Democratic Party, to open a door to a new Brotherhood alliance with democrats in the Middle East.

The Brotherhood began to enter the anti-Trump Democratic election campaign through the withdrawn Democratic candidate, Bernie Sanders. The “American Thinker” magazine indicated that Senator Sanders included in his electoral team members of the Brotherhood, like the Libyan board member of Fairfax county, Abrar Omeish, the daughter of the leader Essam Omeish, who worked as a co-chair of the Sanders campaign in Virginia.

Following Sanders withdrawal, the Brotherhood tended to support Biden to recall Obama’s inheritance, which was reflected on Biden’s openness to some Brotherhood entities. Therefore, Biden delivered a speech before the 57th annual conference of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), one of the Brotherhood’s branches in the United States. In addition, Biden spoke in a virtual session to the Brotherhood’s Emgage Action Organization, whom its leaders mentioned in an interview in the Politico newspaper that it will support Biden in the elections.

Nonetheless, the Brotherhood and the Biden campaign have some differences, as the brotherhood criticized Biden’s campaign for having disavowed the support of the Palestinian-American activist, Linda Sarsour, after her anti-Israel statements. Also, Andrew Bates, the spokesman for the Biden campaign, said in a statement: Biden has been a staunch supporter for Israel and a staunch opponent of anti-Semitism throughout his life, and it is clear that he condemns its views and opposes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS), as does the Democratic Program.

Following the announcement of Biden’s victory, the organization was quick to congratulate him on the hope of restoring channels of communication with the White House, particularly with progressive figures in the Democratic Party, being at the forefront of the US scene. However, after six months of Biden rule, no indication of rapprochement between Washington and the Brotherhood appeared. This can be explained by Biden’s disinclination towards the rise of Islamists to power, compared to other American figures, as revealed by some Obama administration backstage scenes.

Biden’s nomination of Rashad Hussain as an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, last July, may be explained as an indication for rapprochement. This nomination was criticized due to Hussain’s close connection with Brotherhood figures. Some reports indicate that the role played by Hussain in improving the image of the Brotherhood inside the White House during the time of Obama in office, comes after the violent practices it adopted after the 30 June Revolution, in a way that had an impact on the US dealing with the Egyptian scene.

Based on the above, some analyses preliminary suggested that Biden’s victory will give the Brotherhood the kiss of life to rebuild their power and leverage. However, the matter requires a precise dismantle of the nature of relations between Washington and the Brotherhood. First, by considering the US policy, it becomes clear that there is no official policy or clear line in Washington’s dealings with the Brotherhood, as the relations have undergone back-and-forth instances that depend on the nature of American interests and the regional and international circumstances, regardless of the nature of the American administration, even if the Democratic administrations tilted to a more compromising policy.

Determinants of the future of the relationship between Washington and the Brotherhood

The future of the relationship between Washington and the Brotherhood, will, arguably, depend on an equation that includes several variables that will determine the US policy toward this struggling-for-survival organization, which can be explained as follows:

1. The Brotherhood’s position in the United States: This variable is related to several issues topped by the strength of the Brotherhood organization and its associated groups inside the United States. That matter shows the size of Brotherhood lobbies in the United States, especially with the increasing migration of a number of Brotherhood cadres from the Middle East to US cities and universities since the end of the sixties. These migrants have turned to be a consultative structure that has had its branches and extensions within the American think tanks for decades.

 The group managed to establish a number of organizations inside the United States to achieve its goals. These organizations were divided into two types. The first type is the social organizations that aim at spreading and strengthening the Brotherhood ideology. The most prominent are the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the Muslim American Society (MAS). The second type is the political organizations that aim at presenting themselves as the voice of American Muslims on one hand, and on the other hand aim at influencing American foreign policy according to the interests of the parent group. The most prominent are American Muslim Council (AMC), the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and the American Muslim Political Coordination Council (AMPCC).

Among the clear indications of the Brotherhood’s influence on the American media and think tanks is the frequent talk about the Brotherhood member Mustafa Qasim, who died in prison while serving a 15-year prison sentence in the case of the armed Rabaa sit-in dispersal. Besides, the Carnegie Foundation sent a letter to the US administration on 28 August 2020 that denounced the court ruling against the Brotherhood-linked human rights defender, Bahi Al-Din Hassan, who was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment for spreading false news, incitement against the state, and insulting the judiciary.

2. The decline of the organization’s strength in the parent state: The Brotherhood faces many challenges. Concerning the leadership, the group announced the appointment of the London-based Ibrahim Munir as the new acting general guide, in a precedent that is the first of its kind, and in clear contradiction to the classic doctrine of the group that it adopted since its inception. This doctrine is based on the fact that the general guide must manage the group’s affairs from inside Egypt. The movement of the group’s leadership from the inside to the outside, arguably, shows the size of the challenge it faces, as it does not have leadership inside Egypt, which leads to the difficulty of structuring the organization inside its center.

The group’s organizational structure is undergoing a state of replacement and renewal to meet the current challenges. Therefore, the group announced the replacement of the General Secretariat, with a new aide committee headed by Ibrahim Munir. In addition, dissolving the administrative office in Turkey and the Shura Council confirms the weakness of the organization and the structure of the group, bearing in mind that historical experience shows that the group can overcome its challenges and rebuild itself.

3. The group outside the parent state: Given the status of the Brotherhood outside Egypt, we find that its position in the Arab arena is greatly challenging, as the states of the Arab Quartet (Egypt, the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain) have designated the Brotherhood as a “terrorist movement.” Meanwhile, Syria has taken the same decision since 1982, not to mention dissolving the group in Jordan by a court ruling in 2020. 

Recently, the position of the group in Tunisia came into question, particularly in the wake of the revolutionary situation besetting the Tunisian street, which led the Tunisian President, Kais Saied, to take decisions to freeze the work of the parliament, waive the immunity of deputies and exempt Prime Minister Hisham Al-Mashishi. Although Sudan has not banned the group, the post-revolution Sudanese state seeks to dismantle it. In the same context, Mauritania has worked to undermine the group’s influence and close its affiliated associations. The group was also unable to penetrate the Lebanese society due to the sectarian political and demographic composition of the state. 

However, one cannot turn a blind eye to the group’s continuing activity in a number of Arab countries, topped by Gaza and the group’s influence over some of the Libyan state institutions, not to mention the group’s political presence in the parliaments of Morocco, Algeria, and Kuwait.

4. Regional and international circumstances: This variable is closely related to the international and regional factors that stimulate the growth of political Islam currents, topped by the rise in racist discourses, whether those hostile to Islam or hostile to others. This discourse is increasingly taking place, particularly in the West. In addition, the number of conflicts and their complicated dimensions is increasing, especially those bearing religious, racial, or ethnic dimensions, whether in the region, such as the Libyan, Yemeni, and Syrian crises, or outside the region, such as the issue of the Uyghurs and Burmese Muslims, and finally the clash between Armenia and Azerbaijan, in addition to the crisis in the Gulf, in which the Shiite-Sunni clash affects the capabilities of the region. 

Moreover, the Palestinian cause remains at the forefront of the issues that the Muslim Brotherhood exploits to convince the public of its discourse. Therefore, the Gulf normalization process, especially the Emiratis, with Israel may represent an appropriate entrance port for the group to export a discourse that distorts the image of the Arab regimes and makes the group be deemed as the appropriate alternative that is capable of revenge for the cause. The effect of this dimension increases, when the Palestinian interior ignites or Palestinian-Israeli clashes take place.

5. US administration perceptions: Concerning the Brotherhood file, the US administrations, arguably, adopt the same or specific goals with changing tools. The US administration generally tries to maintain open channels with all parties, including the Brotherhood, to ensure that they are being used whenever US interests require. Accordingly, some administrations believe that their contact with the Brotherhood will be means to realize some goals, topped by using them as pressure cards on some regimes and to guarantee their loyalty once they come to power. Besides, through the Brotherhood, it will be able to communicate with other extremist and violent organizations. 

Therefore, the US administration adopts the theory of “integration leads to moderation” at some times, which means that involving Islamists in the political game will lead to their conversion into moderate groups that believe in democracy. However, the US administration, at other times, emphasizes the need to exclude Islamists, and narrow down radical discourse. Besides, some administrations prefer to follow a dual-line between opening backstage channels with Islamists in parallel with strengthening relations with the regimes that are narrowing on them.

6. The Qatar, Turkey, and Brotherhood triangle: The last two decades have witnessed growing Qatari support to the Muslim Brotherhood organization, in addition to the links between the Turkish regime represented in the Justice and Development Party and the Brotherhood Group. The two players (Qatar and Turkey) seek to strengthen the Brotherhood to ascend to power.  Through this, the players will achieve their regional project, which has become increasingly evident since the outbreak of the Arab Spring. 

Following the 30 June 2013 revolution, Turkey became a major arena for the organization, where many of its leaders and members fled to and directed their military, political, and media activities against their states. Besides, Qatar plays a major role in securing financial support of their activities, as well as the large media support by using its media means – especially Al Jazeera – to defend them and promote their project. Accordingly, it seems that the strength of the organization is closely related to the continuation of this triangle, which guarantees its survival, expand channels of action on one hand, and repeat their ideas and defend their project on the other hand. However, the recent time has shown signs of breakdown of this triangle, where both Qatar and Turkey’s pursuit of rapprochement with the Egyptian State has contributed to limiting their warm relations with the Brotherhood. However, it is still difficult to confirm the final breakdown of this link, as the course of the Doha and Ankara movements remains in question.

In sum, relations between Washington and the Brotherhood are more institutional than they appear. Besides, the main difference between the Democratic or Republican parties in their relations with the Brotherhood is in the pattern of these relations, whether direct (the Democratic Party) or indirect (the Republican Party). However, it is not concerned with limiting the spread and the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, but the basic variables in the region mainly affect the group’s strength and spread, and can change the pattern of relations between the two parties. In short, the relations between the Muslim Brotherhood and the United States do not follow a single line, but rather work according to an equation that contains a number of variables, as previously mentioned. Thus, the future of relations will depend on the strength of the organization and its ability to adapt or use regional and international circumstances to rebuild itself again. There is no doubt that the US administration will communicate with any strong player – regardless of their identity – so the strength of the organization and its ability to rebuild itself will be the main determinant of the nature of any relations with the organization.

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