His 25 April press conference was meant to deal with lessons which the government has drawn from the Yellow Vests movement. But the French President unexpectedly launched into an attack on those who, “in the name of religion, adhere to a project of a political Islam which aims to secede from the Republic.” In an off-the-cuff reaction, Stéphane Beaudet, an independent conservative mayor of Paris suburb Evry Courcouronnes, observed that ”concerning Islam, he pulled out all the stops! (. . .) He really spoke his mind. The European elections are just around the corner “.1
Spokesperson for Les Républicains (LR), Lydia Guirous rejoiced but felt the President didn’t go far enough. In an op-ed which appeared in Le Journal du Dimanche (4 May)—and has been endorsed by over 50 LR MPs—she demanded the dissolution of “all organisations affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. I have in mind the association of “Musulmans de France,”the new name of the UOIF (Union des organisations islamiques de France).” She added that France should designate the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation. “Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Great Britain have already done so.” One lie and one omission in a single sentence: London refused to go along with a designation demanded, on the other hand, by Saudi Arabia. But even for Les Républicains, to align themselves with a kingdom which is conducting a bloody war in Yemen and ordered the heinous murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi would no doubt have been hard to swallow.
This panicky language is not a monopoly of the right-wing French opposition, it can be heard coming from a broad range of political parties, mass media and intellectuals in France and throughout the European Union. In their crusade against “political Islam”, they rehash all the clichés of the far right – often with the strange pretext of halting the rise of such movements, and we all know how successful this has been!
The American president has been contaminated by this same phobia of Islam but with consequences that could be far more dangerous for the rest of the world. As the New York Times has revealed, his administration would like to add the Muslim Brotherhood to its list of terrorist organisations. This idea was already being bandied about when Trump took office and it was revived following his meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi on 9 April 2019. It has the support of two other Middle-Eastern autocrats, the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Mohamed Ben Salman (MBS) and Mohamed Ben Zayed (MBZ), whose Washington envoys skulk in the corridors of power.
In the President’s immediate entourage, three people are pushing him in that direction. First, there is his national security adviser, John Bolton. He was one of the planners of the disastrous US adventure in Iraq in 2003 and one-time chairman of the Gatestone Institut, where it is believed that the United Kingdom has become “an Islamist colony” and where Muslim immigration in Europe is compared with “the great white death” (reference to the “great black plague” which devastated the continent in the 14th century). Then there is Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, previous head of the CIA, who was a Tea Party congressman and who is closely involved with the foundation ACT! for America. The president of this organisation, Brigitte Gabriel, has written that “Jihad is mentioned in the Quran 40 times — 36 times out of 40 as a holy war against the infidels, to either kill them or subjugate them.”
The least known of the three, Victoria Coates is in charge of the Middle East for the National Security Counsel, although her specialty, surprisingly enough, is European art. She has worked for the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, a neo-conservative think tank, which would be more appropriately named “Foundation for the Defence of Israel”. This is no doubt why Coates is currently associated with the group preparing the “agreement of the century” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in gestation for two years now and which should be made public in the next few weeks. Will this sturdy coalition, composed of a handful of Middle-Eastern dictators and a clique of agitators close to the American ultra-right succeed in pushing through legislation against the Brotherhood? Perhaps not, for this plan is met with much questioning and many doubts inside the beltway itself. For what comes under attack here is not a clandestine entity such as al-Qaida or the Islamic State (IS) but a movement with hundreds of thousands of members and millions of sympathizers in the Arab world. Whenever free elections have been held in one of those countries, the Brotherhood has obtained at least a third of the vote and at times has won a parliamentary majority in Palestine, in Egypt and Morocco (not to speak of the Algerian elections of 1991). Banning the Brotherhood is tantamount to banning democracy, while the West never ceases to brag about defending it. The Egyptian example is edifying in this respect: in June-July 2013 a large portion of society took to the streets to challenge the elected President Mohamed Morsi and his party, the Muslim Botherhood. After having ousted them with unprecedented brutality, the army attacked the liberals and the left, then every dissident voice. And turned the country into a political disaster area.
By slamming the door on democracy, authoritarian regimes as well as the Western powers are indirectly encouraging the most radical organisations. The day after Sissi’s coup on 3 July 2013, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the head of al-Qaida sent a letter to the Egyptian Brotherhood in which he wrote, in substance: “We told you so, the democratic way is an impasse. “ As political commentator Marwan Bishara has pointed out:“ Perhaps the most damaging for regional and indeed global security is equating the Muslim Brotherhood with al-Qaeda and treating them as one, which spells disaster. It would not only push many Brothers underground, but also strengthen violent jihadi groups and vindicate their claim that the West at large sees all Muslims as terrorists and Islam as a threat. “
One may understand that those in charge of the fight against terrorism in the United States should be especially reluctant to divert a share of their resources to engage in dubious battle with the Brotherhood which has never launched the slightest operation in the USA or in Europe and certain branches of which are actually allies of the United States, as the editorialist David Kirkpatrick has pointed out in the New York Times: in Kuwait since the Iraqi invasion of 1990; in Iraq, where they have taken part in government coalitions; in Yemen where they fight alongside the coalition under Saudi leadership; in Syria where they are part of the anti-Assad opposition.
And what will happen in countries where the Brotherhood is part of the legal political landscape? In Morroco, one of its members, who belongs to the Party of Justice and Development (PJD) is Prime Minister, and the Brotherhood takes part in legislative elections in Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Mauritania. Will Washington break off relations with all those countries if they fail to ban the organisation?
Designating the Brotherhood as terrorist would adversely affect other American alliances in the region, in particular its relations with Qatar (which hosts the main US military base in the region and where Washington has just sent some B-52 bombers as part of its campaign of intimidation against Iran) or with Turkey (where relations with the US have seriously deteriorated over the past few years). These two countries “are the primary state backers” of the organisation, Jonathan Schantzer of the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies claimed last year before Congress. “If US policymakers truly wish to undermine the global reach of the Muslim Brotherhood, it must take a hard look at the group’s state sponsors,”2 he said. However, this opinion is not shared by everybody in Washington, including part of the pro-Israel lobby who points out that Qatar contributes to “the stabilisation” of Gaza.
But is the Brotherhood really “terrorist”? Here at Orient XXI we have on several occasions denounced the inanity of this term when it comes to qualifying an organisation. Even if we restrict it to “the use of violence against civilians,”we must remember that is condemned by the Brotherhood. The sole exception is Hamas, regarded by the Brotherhood, but also by the vast majority of Arab (Muslim) public opinion, as an organisation of legitimate resistance against an illegitimate occupation. And in any case, Hamas is already on the list of terrorist organisations compiled by the United Staes and the European Union. We may dislike the Brotherhood, its authoritarian tendencies (which it shares with many other political forces in the region), its sectarianism or its neo-liberal economic program. But it is part of the political landscape and repressing it causes a setback for democracy, not for its ideas: if we are to believe a recent poll, one third of the Egyptian population still has a positive opinion of the Brotherhood, in spite of its being vilified every day in all the media and accused of the most heinous crimes.
The United States are engaged in an escalation against Iran, adopting increasingly severe sanctions and designating the Guardians of the Revolution as a terrorist organisation. As Marwan Bishara points out, they have given carte blanche to their Israeli, Egyptian, and Sudanese allies “ to do as they please domestically and regionally, as long as they purchase US weapons, invest in the US economy and support US initiatives in the Middle East, like the soon to be revealed “deal of the century’”. The criminalisation of the Muslim Brotherhood in this context would only be seen as part of an all-out war against Muslims.
At which point some can begin wondering pompously, “why do they hate ̔us̕ ”? And feign surprise that between 2016 and 2019 the number of young Arabs who consider the United States to be their ally has dropped from 59% to 32%, while those who see Russia as their ally is now 64%3. By the same token, France has also been discredited: according to another poll, while 79% of respondents in the Arab world have an opinion not very favourable or unfavourable of the USA, the figure is 45% for France (as against only 36% favourable) . General De Gaulle must be turning over in his grave at the sight of the disaster area that his “Arab policy of France” has become.
1Le Monde, 26 April 2019.
2Quoted by Thomas Seibert, «US move towards Brotherhood ban could upend Turkish-Qatari strategies», The Arab Weekly, 5 mai 2019.
3‟What do 200 million Arab Youth have to say about their future ?”, ASDAA BCW survey.