The war on terror has seen its share of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” In just the past few years, the United States has at least tacitly supported operations by some Iran-backed militias in Iraq in the fight against ISIS. President Trump has championed a joint U.S.-Russian effort to defeat ISIS in Syria. And senior U.S. officials have indicated that the United States is ready to tolerate Bashar al-Assad staying in power. He’s evil, they say. But he’s a bulwark against an even worse evil – an ISIS resurgence.
Much the same can be said of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The Brotherhood is not a friend of the United States, as the organization has been affiliated with numerous terrorist groups over the years. Sayyid Qutb was an influential figure in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and 1960s. He was also a radical ideologue whose writings inspire al Qaeda and other jihadists to this day. And the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has a history of violence – one of the reasons President Trump has been a strong supporter of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's crackdown on the organization.
But that history peaked from the 1940s to the 1960s. The Muslim Brotherhood has evolved as an organization. Some radicals are still in or affiliated with the group. But the group itself has stood for nonviolent, incremental reform since the 1970s. Its leadership decided that its interests would be better served by working through the political process – that is, by the vote – than by trying to overthrow the Egyptian state. The United States doesn’t share the Brotherhood’s goal of establishing an Islamic state in Egypt. But this adherence to nonviolence is something we should support.
The Brotherhood stands today at a precipice. Its past commitment to nonviolence is falling away. This all began with the Arab Spring. The Spring arrived in Egypt in 2011, leading to Brotherhood leader Mohamad Morsi’s election as president in 2012. But Morsi was widely accused of trying to impose an Islamist agenda against the people’s will. He was removed from power by Sisi in July 2013. Sisi was elected president in 2014.
Morsi’s ouster was followed by a violent crackdown. Security forces have killed over a thousand – probably a conservative estimate – Egyptian civilians since the summer of 2013. 800 nonviolent protesters were killed in one operation, what’s now known as the Rabaa Massacre. And Egyptian forces have detained tens of thousands more. Detainees are subject to systemic human rights violations, from mass trials to torture.
The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is fracturing, as a result. On one hand, nonviolent reformists face a crisis of legitimacy. Many Brotherhood elders still stand for nonviolence, but they are no longer credible. Their calls for nonviolent resistance to what they saw as a Sisi-led coup in 2013 were answered by mass slaughter, after all.
Brotherhood youth demand a more forceful response to the government’s repression. Some of their elders appear to endorse the same. Indeed, it’s been reported that some senior Brotherhood officials independently set up “special committees” in 2013 and 2014. These committees were authorized to attack government facilities – like police stations – but not to kill.
In the years since, however, several homegrown terrorist organizations have emerged that are killing Egyptian officials and security forces. These groups are using increasingly sophisticated tactics. And – even more concerning – they’re using rhetoric that is specially designed to resonate with disaffected Egyptian Islamists. They don’t use the same language that al Qaeda uses – they know that al Qaeda’s ideas don’t resonate with many Egyptians. Instead, their recruitment pitches focus on Cairo’s heavy-handed suppression of protests, use of torture, and other violations of Islamists’ dignity.
President Sisi can avert this rise in homegrown terrorism. He is currently trying to do so by economic reform. This might do the trick. But economic reform is a long, hard slog – and there’s a chance it won’t work. That’s why Sisi needs a backup plan.
Sisi must offer Islamists a political outlet for their grievances that doesn’t involve violence. To do this, he should be ready to engage remaining nonviolent reformists in the Muslim Brotherhood. By making some concessions, such as directing security forces to no longer target nonviolent dissenters, he can incentivize alienated Brothers and sympathizers towards a more peaceful path of dissent.
This isn’t going to be an easy decision for Sisi. But it’s one he needs to make. And it’s one the United States should encourage him to make. A sustained rise in homegrown terrorism could erode public faith in President Sisi – a faith that’s already stretched due to Egypt’s weak economy. This would place Egypt at risk for rising cycles of violence, which may endanger U.S. troops and counterterrorism efforts that rely on Egyptian government support to succeed.
The United States has made many hard decisions during the war on terror. Recommending that Sisi engage with Brotherhood reformists would be a tough one. But it would be in America’s interests.
It may be unpalatable to work with the Brotherhood, but working with them is better than the alternative: Watching homegrown terrorists destabilize one of America’s closest partners in the fight against terrorism.