WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump is working to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization (FTO), the White House said on Tuesday, which would bring sanctions against Egypt’s oldest Islamist movement.
“The president has consulted with his national security team and leaders in the region who share his concern and this designation is working its way through the internal process,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in an email.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi asked Trump to make the designation during an April 9 visit to Washington, a senior U.S. official said, confirming a report in the New York Times on Tuesday.
After the meeting, Trump praised Sisi as a “great president” while a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers raised concerns about Sisi’s human rights record, his efforts to stay in office until 2034 and Egypt’s planned Russian arms purchases.
The White House did not say on what basis it might label the group a terrorist organization and former officials questioned whether the group met the legal standard of engaging in “terrorist activity” that threatens U.S. citizens or national security.
The Brotherhood, which estimates its membership at up to 1 million people, came to power in Egypt’s first modern free election in 2012, a year after long-serving autocrat and U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak was toppled in a popular uprising.
As Egypt’s army chief in 2013, Sisi engineered the removal of elected President Mohamed Mursi, a senior Brotherhood figure, and a subsequent crackdown on its supporters as well as liberal opposition in Egypt. Sisi was then elected president in 2014.
After Mursi’s overthrow, the Brotherhood was swiftly banned in Egypt. Authorities declared it a terrorist organization and jailed thousands of followers as well as much of its leadership, including Mursi.
The Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928, says it is a non-violent movement and denies any relationship to violent insurgencies waged by al Qaeda and Islamic State militants.
“We will remain ... steadfast in our work in accordance with our moderate and peaceful thinking,” the Brotherhood said in a statement on its website.
It was not clear if the administration was considering blacklisting only the Egyptian branch as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) or all regional offshoots of what analysts say is a heterogeneous group with no central authority.
The proposal to designate the group set off a debate within Trump’s national security team, the senior U.S. official said.
White House national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo support the designation but officials at the Pentagon and elsewhere have been opposed and want more limited action, the senior official said.
“The President has heard the concerns about the Muslim Brotherhood from our friends and allies in the Middle East, as well as here at home,” said a second senior U.S. official. “Any potential designation would go through a robust, deliberate, and inclusive interagency process.”
Former U.S. officials were skeptical that the Brotherhood met the U.S. legal standard to be designated an FTO.
Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s former top official for counterterrorism who teaches at Dartmouth College, called the idea “mystifying,” saying the agency considered the designation in 2017 but concluded there was no basis.
Benjamin said U.S. domestic political considerations could be at play with Trump facing re-election in 2020. “There is no question that there has been an effort to meet the appetites of Trump’s very Islamophobic base,” he said.
Jason Blazakis, a former State Department official who oversaw the FTO designation process, voiced concern that U.S. right-wing groups would be encouraged to call for legal action against domestic Muslim advocacy organizations.
“It will be used to go after organizations inappropriately within the United States,” said Blazakis, head of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies’ Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counter-Terrorism.
Analysts said the designation also could complicate U.S. dealings with officials across the Middle East.
Under U.S. law, someone who provides “material support” to terrorist groups is subject to extensive penalties. Material support is defined widely and can cover anything from providing funds, transportation or counterfeit documents to giving food, helping to set up tents or distributing literature.
Foreign nationals who deal with such groups can be denied U.S. visas or removed from the United States if in the country.
Istanbul-based Yehya Hamed, who served as investment minister in the Mursi government, said Trump is “trying to fight with the wind,” pointing to the prominent role of Islamist political parties in Tunisia and Morocco.
“What Trump is doing is bringing more instability to the region,” Hamed said.
Formally designating the Brotherhood could also worsen the U.S. relationship with NATO ally Turkey. The organization has close ties with President Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling AK Party and many of its members fled to Turkey after it was banned in Egypt.
Reporting by Steve Holland, Doina Chiacu, Arshad Mohammed and Jonathan Landay in WASHINGTON; additional Reporting by Omar Fahmy and Aidan Lewis in CAIRO; editing by Franklin Paul, Bill Trott and David Gregorio