Last July, the Congressional Subcommittee on National Security organized a set of hearings intended to brief U.S. representatives on the subject of “the Muslim Brotherhood’s Global Threat[i].” The purpose of these hearings was to determine what dangers this Islamist movement presented for “American interests.” The hearing clearly aimed to consider the prospect of labeling the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, presenting the group as “a radical Islamist organization that has generated a network of related movements in seventy countries.” While the United States has been labeling other Islamist movements, such as the Palestinian group Hamas, as terrorist organizations for years, no steps have been taken as concerns the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, considered the mother movement of political Islam for almost a century.
Considerably isolated since the July 2013 coup that overthrew it after nineteen months in power (albeit under a military-led transition), the history of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has also been marked by a strong international dimension, which pushed the movement to interact with the major powers, particularly the United States. The United States has never entered into direct conflict with the Ikhwan (Arabic for “Brothers”), despite being aware of strong anti-Western positions contained in the ideology of the group’s founder, Hasan al-Banna (who was responding to the British colonial presence in Egypt during his life). Instead, the United States has looked to cultivate a close, even instrumental relationship, when the latter was seen as potentially useful for the promotion of American interests in Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world. The declassified archives of the State Department shed light on the interactions between a global superpower and the leading Islamist movement, revealing both American hesitation and interest in engaging with the Muslim Brotherhood.
“The Fanatic Ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood”
Although the Brotherhood was born in 1928, it was not until 1944 that the U.S. embassy in Cairo produced an initial report on the group. The early years of the Muslim Brotherhood thus do not seem to have garnered the attention of American diplomatic representation in Egypt. Until the 1940s, U.S. relations with Egypt were motivated mainly by the need to protect American economic interests and then, unsurprisingly, by strategic considerations during World War II, before the fear of communism in the 1950s became central. During that time, members of the Brotherhood sent no fewer than 320 letters to the U.S. embassy, primarily to protest U.S. support for the Zionist settlement of Palestine, but also to voice opposition against France’s granting of citizenship to certain Muslims from Algeria. These letters generated the first diplomatic telegrams, which remarked on the rise of “a Fanatical Moslem Society” called “Ikhwan El-Muslimin (Moslem Brotherhood)”[ii] in Egypt.
Until the early 1950s, American officials continued to view the Muslim Brotherhood as a violent movement professing an ideology that taught followers to “hate all non-Muslims” and advocate for the implementation of “the Koranic law.” However, the rise to power of the Free Officers and the subsequent fears by U.S. officials of an Egyptian rapprochement with the Soviet Union (reinforced by the emergence of Nasser as an anti-colonial regional leader), pushed U.S. officials to reconsider the Muslim Brotherhood, describing it from then on as a movement of “orthodox believers.” Regular meetings between the chargé d’affaires Franck Gaffney and the Muslim Brotherhood’s General Guide Hassan al-Hudaybi were held at the U.S. embassy in Cairo during these years of rapprochement. In the mid-1950s, following an initial period of cooperation, the United States seized upon rising tensions between the Ikhwan and Egypt’s military elites, seeing an opportunity to reinforce the anti-communist front.
The Cold War Years
U.S. diplomatic archives have never granted a central place to the government’s dealings with the Muslim Brotherhood. The movement certainly appeared to be an important religious and political movement in Egypt, but its significance was beneath that of the military, the monarchy, the Wafd Party, and the communists. By the mid-1950s, however, its role as the last remaining opposition to Nasser became the sole reason the United States showed an interest in it. Even Sayyid Qutb, a key Brotherhood figure by the late 1950s, was only referenced a handful of times, and his execution in 1966 was only briefly mentioned in the embassy’s dispatches. More important for the United States was the ability of the movement to exert pressure on Nasser’s decisions at a time when his regime’s relations with the Soviet Union (fluctuating but nonetheless solid) represented the main source of concern for American policy. Though diplomatic reports do not refer to any specific kind of policy towards the Muslim Brotherhood as a possible partner against Nasser, the archives highlight each instance in which the Ikhwan exhibited opposition to the regime. While it was never explicitly stated that the movement could serve as an ally, the fact that the Ikhwan’s discourses and demonstrations against the government were systematically reported provides some clear evidence that U.S. diplomats did pay attention to the antagonism between both parties.
The 1960s represent a decade during which the question of the Ikhwan disappeared entirely from the agenda of the U.S. embassy in Cairo. This can be explained in large part by the repression and persecution the movement faced at the time. Halting the growing influence of Nasser was certainly the main U.S. priority. However, getting access to the Ikhwan was made significantly more difficult in the context of an atmosphere of repression against all political opponents.
As the prospect of reengagement with the regime became more appealing after Nasser’s death in 1970, U.S. officials lost interest in the Ikhwan as possible allies against a government that became far more receptive to U.S. influence in the region with the rise of Anwar Sadat.
If the diplomatic telegrams out of Egypt are to be believed, the Iranian revolution of 1978-1979, with its strong Islamic character, did not generate concern that a wave of Islamist revolts could sweep across the Muslim world. Even following Sadat’s assassination in 1981, officials saw no links between events in Iran and developments in Egypt. The ideological makeup of the group responsible for the assassination of Sadat was never mentioned in relation to a broader wave of Islamic opposition movements. According to these diplomatic accounts, the Muslim Brotherhood remained a domestic problem for Egyptian government until the late 1980s, and was not seen as part of a global Islamic resurgence that characterized the political landscape in many Muslim societies.
The interviews that I conducted with leading U.S. diplomats and policymakers confirm the total absence of reference to Islamism as an ideology during this period. Moreover, the term never appeared in American diplomatic reports or documents, nor in official policy statements. One of the directors of the Bureau for Near Eastern Affairs stated that Sadat’s assassination was even interpreted by many within the State Department at the time as a communist initiative aimed to instrumentalize religious integrationists. Sadat’s murderers, for instance, were never identified as members of the Muslim Brotherhood by the U.S. diplomats present in Egypt at that time. The notion of a radical group whose ideology extended from the Muslim Brotherhood’s legacy was simply absent.
Islamists and the Threat of Religious Extremism
The situation changed in the early 1990s. The absence of a global actor capable of occupying the place left by the Soviet Union fueled a strategic shift. Some American diplomats and military personnel began to view the Muslim Brotherhood and related movements, such as the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which won elections in December 1991, as the custodians of a transnational Islamist ideology that could damage American interests globally. This fear was expressed explicitly by the ambassador Edward Djerejian (who served in Syria and Israel) in his famous Meridian Speech of 4 June 1992 in which, for the first time, “religious or political extremism” was mentioned as a global threat. From then on, Islamism (the term had not been used yet) was identified as a danger for the world’s sole superpower and became a chief concern for American chancelleries.
Now believing it to represent a danger that had to be tamed, the 1990s in Egypt was thus a decade of renewed U.S. engagement with the Ikhwan, even while a substantial constraint emerged, namely the extreme reticence of the Hosni Mubarak regime to see its American ally reach out to its religious opposition at the domestic level. This led to stagnation in contacts during the second half of the 1990s, before the dawn of transnational jihadist terrorism. The attacks of 11 September 2001 pushed the United States to once again question whether the Muslim Brotherhood represented a potentially moderating force or, to the contrary, one that facilitates the progress of movements such as al-Qa‘ida. This fueled a substantial debate within influential circles in Washington D.C. and elsewhere about the danger (real or exaggerated) of the Ikhwan. The ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood was, from then on, widely debated: the term “Islamism” was now in much wider circulation. One striking example of this can be observed in the different works generated by U.S. think tanks fueling diplomatic and political discourses at the behest of various state institutions (the White House and State Department mainly) in the field of foreign policy. Such think tanks, generally considered "centrist," have in recent years advanced a narrative centered on the radical nature of Islamist ideology, while at the same time allowing for development opportunities, and in particular, the prospects of a democratic opening in which different political forces would be able to express their opinions. This is especially true of many reports from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Brookings Institute[iii], while other institutions, such as the Rand Corporation and the National Research Defense Institute, are characterized by a higher degree of mistrust towards the Muslim Brotherhood. For example, in Cheryl Benard’s report[iv], the question of democratization within Muslim-majority societies is tied to the question of secularization, such that actors who claim a religious identity cannot be considered as privileged partners. It is no surprise that according to this view, factors explaining the absence of democratization in Muslim countries are generally related to religion and highlight that only a specific way of dealing with Islam in the public (and sometimes private) sphere is likely to generate a democratization process (the solution thus lying in a major religious reform). Fundamentally, this study draws a typology of Muslims in the world, dividing them between “secularists,” “traditionalists,” “modernists,” and “fundamentalists.” Put in the “fundamentalists” category, the Muslim Brothers are not only analyzed as less compatible with democracy, but also closer to Jihadist and terrorist organizations such as al-Qa‘ida than moderate actors. Thus, the author argues that there is an ideological and political continuum unifying all the proponents of a radical form of Islam.
The Brotherhood in Power
The early success of the 2011 Egyptian uprising presented the Muslim Brotherhood with its first real opportunity to achieve political power. The 2012 election of Mohamed Morsi as president confronted the United States with the prospect of dealing with the Islamist movement as head of the Egyptian state for the first time. The policy characterizing the relationship between the two can be best described as cautious pragmatism. Although Morsi’s government did not enjoy full control over many of the levers of power in the Egyptian state, the Obama administration, largely through its ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, sought to make Brotherhood leaders aware of their obligations. Their anti-Western and anti-Israel ideological commitments, which ensured them widespread popular support during years of opposition and repression, were now expected to be replaced by more realistic considerations necessitated by the sudden rise to power. Prior to their electoral success in 2012, Hillary Clinton clearly focused on the opportunity for the United States to find a political modus operandi with the Muslim Brothers provided certain commitments were made. In June 2011, Hillary Clinton, during a visit to Budapest, declared:
We believe, given the changing political landscape in Egypt, that it is in the interests of the United States to engage with all parties that are peaceful and committed to nonviolence, that intend to compete for the parliament and the presidency (…) And we welcome, therefore, dialogue with those Muslim Brotherhood members who wish to talk with us[v].
The ambiguity that characterizes the American view of the Muslim Brotherhood can be illustrated by actions during the months of governance by representatives of the movement. If, for instance, the role of mediation ensured by President Morsi during the 2012 Gaza conflict was saluted as a sign of pragmatism and cooperation by American diplomats, a number of political-religious statements and references continued to worry U.S. officials, who were above all seeking stability at a time when a number of Arab states seemed to be reaching a boiling point. Patterson’s statements are illustrative of this dualism.[vi] In 2011, she said that she was “not personally comfortable with (the Muslim Brotherhood) enough yet” however recognizing later their commitment to economic freedoms, while still highlighting concerns about “[the Brotherhood’s] less liberal stances on women’s rights”. Another example of this dual position is illustrated by Morsi’s role during the Gaza conflict, as well as his government’s observance of the 1979 Peace Treaty with Israel. These actions received glowing approval from the United States even though a number of points regarding the vision of the Ikhwan as to the place of religion in Egyptian society continued to fuel suspicion.
At a time when President Donald Trump seems to have adopted a principle of unabashed realism in the Arab world (making American interests the only constant of U.S. foreign policy), what is his administration’s understanding of the ideology and role of the Muslim Brotherhood at a time when the latter is confronting the most serious crisis in its history? By essentializing Islam writ large as a global threat, the U.S. president and his administration (whose officials seem to have made the State Department a largely marginalized actor in the crafting of American foreign policy) have not created an official doctrine with respect to Islamic movements in particular. Nonetheless, the explicit animosity directed towards them fuels a number of questions about a possible narrowing of the positions that prevailed under Barack Obama. This can be described as an attempt to raise the stakes for opening the game to the Muslim Brotherhood’s inclusion, in the most controlled way possible, by betting on their conversion to political realism. The reinforced alliance between American hegemony and Sunni monarchies in the Gulf (not including Qatar), have today closed ranks in terms of the strategy of pushing back the Ikhwan in the region, and have been aided in that regard by Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. This has prompted some of Trump’s close advisers to push more aggressively to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a “terrorist organization.” For the time being, no decision in this direction seems to be under serious consideration, though interpreting American diplomacy in the current moment has become quite complicated. That being said, a set of different possibilities exists: from adopting a more radical stance towards the Muslim Brotherhood, to maintaining a wait-and-see approach, which would once again see the United States hinge its position towards the Islamist movement on its capacity to survive in an increasingly closed Egyptian political game with the possibility that it may someday yet again emerge as a formidable force.
[ii] Studying the archives makes it possible to observe that these letters are the reason for which, for the first time, an English-Arab translator was recruited by the U.S. Embassy, which had no such skills prior to that time.
[iii] Shadi Hamid, The Enduring Challenge of Engaging Islamists: Lessons from Egypt, (Brookings Institution, Project on Middle East Democracy, 2014).
[iv] Cheryl Benard, Civil Democratic Islam. Partners, Resources, and Strategies, (RAND, National Security Research Division, 2003)
[v] Mary Beth Sheridan, "U.S. to expand relations with Muslim Brotherhood," The Washington Post, 30 June 2011,
[vi] Anne B. Pierce, “U.S. ‘Partnership’ with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Its Effect on Civil Society and Human Rights,” Society 51, no. 1 (2014), 68-86.