U.S. Policy and the Muslim Brotherhood

Published: January 19, 2015

by Steven Brooke —

On June 24, 2012 Mohammed Morsi, a candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood, won Egypt’s first presidential elections.  The same day, U.S. President Barack Obama called his counterpart to offer his congratulations on the victory.  Morsi’s high-profile triumph symbolizes the Islamist electoral successes that have followed in the wake of the Arab Spring.  It is also a historic reversal.  For while past U.S. Administrations preferred to keep Islamist groups at arms length, now the U.S. must deal with them as equals, in positions of power in key states. 

This chapter will trace the emergence of U.S. policy towards Arab Islamist groups, mainly but not exclusively through the lens of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.  After briefly reviewing prior works on the subject, I discuss periods of episodic Cold War cooperation, governed by the logic of competition between the superpowers.  The end of the Cold War eerily coincided with Algeria’s attempt at electoral democracy, aborted when the military, with Western acquiescence, intervened to cancel the elections.  This cast a long shadow over U.S. attempts to formulate a policy toward Islamist movements that continued into the Clinton Administration.  Partially in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the George W. Bush Administration officially rejected Islamist movements, even as its policies brought them to power in Iraq and the Palestinian Territories.  It was also during the Bush Administration that a wide-ranging debate over Islamist groups emerged, although these debates ran in tracks earlier controversies had worn.  The Obama Administration made tentative but significant moves to renew contacts with Islamist movements, but was still left scrambling by the events of the Arab Spring.

Islamism and U.S. Foreign Policy

A number of scholars have attempted to analyze U.S. (or more generally Western) policies towards political Islam.  In American and Political Islam: Clash of Cultures of Clash of Interests? Fawaz Gerges suggests that, by and large, U.S. antagonism towards Islamists is based on Islamists’ opposition to U.S. strategic interests, not cultural enmity.  Gerges does allow, however, that latent cultural hostility towards Islam occasionally intrudes on the policymaking process, particularly via elected representatives in Congress.  Maria de Ceu Pinto largely agrees with the “clash of interests”- based approach in her historical survey of U.S. policy towards Islamist movements.  In an earlier study, Fuller and Lesser also argue that animosity between the West and Islam is largely due not to theology, but “political, economic, psychological strategic, and cultural” factors.

While these studies are noteable, one issue they confront is the tendency to downplay changes in policy. In essence, interests, such as support for Israel or protection of Middle Eastern energy resources, are fixed.  Yet U.S. policies, on the other hand, vary.  For instance, why does George W. Bush freeze out Islamists, while Obama begins a tentative outreach?  Interest-based analyses often have trouble explaining why different presidents pursue similar interests in different ways.   

Other analysts suggest that U.S. animosity towards Islamist groups is cultural.  The U.S. needed a new enemy after the Cold War, the argument goes, and Islamism simply became the “next ism” the country must confront.  As Moussalli argues, “Islamic movements, and, at times, the Islamic world and Islam, have taken the place of communism as the arch-enemy.”

The cultural explanations struggle because they predict that U.S. policy towards Islam would be universally hostile.  In reality there is a tremendous amount of variation in U.S. policy towards Islam.  The U.S. enjoys generally good relations with the Islamist PJD in Morocco and to a somewhat lesser extent with the IAF in Jordan.  The U.S. maintains a close alliance with Turkey which has since the 1995 elections always seen a significant Islamist presence in government.  Finally, the U.S. has allied very tightly since the 1950’s with the fundamentalist Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  Why does the U.S. work closely with some Islamic actors while refusing to work with others?  While these analysts are indeed correct that there exists a reservoir of hostility to Islam among segments of the American population, such a cultural approach cannot sufficiently explain the observed variation in U.S. policy.

A third group of authors see U.S. policy on Islamist groups as neither a function of national interest or culture, but instead as largely a consequence of the policymaking process itself.  In the case of the Brotherhood, according to Vidino, barriers to information sharing amongst government agencies, ignorance about Islam and Islamists, and elected officials’ reliance on Muslim constituencies largely explain the varying policy responses to Islamist groups.   This suggests that if officials possessed better information, either because they were simply willing to learn more about Islamist groups, or because governments engineered better information-sharing policies, then a more unified Islamist policy would emerge.

While this approach provides a useful and interesting interpretation of western policies towards political Islam, it is not wholly satisfying. While a general lack of knowledge often handicaps U.S. foreign policy, there is little evidence that policymakers are more ignorant about Islam than they are about other facets of national policy, either foreign or domestic.  Islam is an especially public, and sometimes appalling, case, but, unfortunately, it is probably not a special one.   

Secondly, there exists no consensus on the true nature of Islamist groups.  While this debate was almost completely submerged during the Cold War, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the proliferation of Islamist movements and the dramatic rise in their visibility during the 90s kick-started a wide ranging and clamorous debate both inside and outside government.  This debate resurfaced in the middle of George W. Bush’s second term.  Especially within the policymaking arena, these differing analytical perspectives on Islamist groups are reinforced and intensified by specific bureaucratic cultures and prerogatives. 

I argue that while U.S. generally lacks a coherent and official policy towards Islamist groups, and there remains a sometimes thick (and occasionally justified) air of suspicion over Islamist groups, there are nonetheless discernable differences between administrations.  The George H.W. Bush and Clinton Administrations generally pursued a reactive Islamist policy, dealing with the group only in response to developments on the ground, as in Algeria.  Partly in response to the trauma of the 9/11 attacks, but also reflecting the composition of his national security team, the George W. Bush Administration kept Islamists at arms length, allowing even the limited relationships his predecessors established to decay.  Barack Obama, on the other hand, began a cautious process of outreach based around his speech in Cairo in June 2009.   This chapter supports Pinto’s conclusion that “the greatest changes in U.S. policy occur when a new administration takes office bringing in a new foreign policy team.”

Theoretically, this demonstrates that while the strategic character of interests does not vary, the way that those interests are pursued can and often does vary widely.  Presidents and their staffs are constrained by bureaucracies and domestic opinion (sometimes exercised through Congress, sometimes not), but they do have latitude to set their own policies.  While this may seem uncontroversial, this chapter does follow other works that have re-focused on how the strategic choices of the president set policy.  The electoral successes of Islamist parties in Egypt and Tunisia, and the election of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt, has the potential to show the limits of presidential prerogatives when key national interests are perceived to be in jeopardy.

Cold War Allies

The United States’ first connections with political Islam were necessitated by the superpower politics of the Cold War.  Across the globe, both the Soviet Union and the United States sought to gain clients of their own and weaken those of their opponents.  In the Middle East, Egypt was the prize.  In 1952, a marriage of convenience between the Brotherhood and the “Free Officers” overthrew the Egyptian King, dissolved the monarchy, and tossed the British out.  As Gamal Abdel Nasser emerged as the leader of the new Egypt, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union attempted to woo him into their respective camps.  Nasser, however, proved to be his own man and began to promulgate an assertive doctrine of Arab Nationalism. 

As the U.S. sought to constrain Nasser’s influence and circumscribe Soviet activity in the Middle East it explored the possibility of using religion to highlight both communism’s atheism and the affinity between the U.S. and the Middle East.  In addition to brokering alliances with the fundamentalist regime in Saudi Arabia, the U.S. government began to consider a relationship with Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood. 

It seems likely that there were contacts between American officials and the Brotherhood in Egypt, but there is little evidence to indicate the extent of the relationship.  State Department employees in Egypt did display a widespread knowledge about the group.  For instance, in a dispatch from the embassy in Cairo, a U.S. State Department staffer suggested inviting a member of the Brotherhood to a conference in the U.S.  The staffer noted that the Muslim Brother’s expenses would be paid by the group itself, and cautioned his superiors to tread carefully “in light of the possible effects of offending this important body.”  The Brotherhood official attended the conference, and even met with the President.  There was, according to one Egyptian analyst, even a meeting between a U.S. Embassy official and Brotherhood founder Hasan al-Banna to discuss potential mutual efforts against communism, “but the gap in views proved too wide to bridge.”

As to a more extensive relationship, there is very little beyond speculation.  The author of an authoritative history of the Brotherhood artfully elides the question of whether the group accepted foreign (British) funding, and dismisses the idea that the Brotherhood ever acted on behalf of foreign powers as “hardly worth examining.”  However Miles Copeland, the former CIA officer, writes that the Brotherhood “had been thoroughly penetrated, at the top, by the British, American, French, and Soviet intelligence services…”

One of the more extensively researched episodes in this early relationship revolves around Muslim Brotherhood figure Said Ramadan (al-Banna’s son-in-law and father of European Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan).  As chronicled by Ian Johnson, the CIA saw in the Brotherhood a potential lever against communism and worked to bolster Ramadan’s prominence, particularly among Europe-based Muslims.  Drawing on interviews with former colleagues and associates of the CIA’s point man on the outreach (Bob Dreher), as well as a collection of reports from European intelligence agencies, Johnson concludes that “short of a CIA pay stub, every other indication points to the fact that Dreher and Amcomlib were using financial and political leverage to give the Brotherhood’s man in Europe (Said Ramadan) a leg up.”  However as Cold War battlefields shifted East, and the 1967 defeat sucked the wind from Nasser’s sails, evidence of contacts between the Brotherhood and the U.S. dwindles.

For the remainder of the Cold War there are accounts of episodic cooperation on other issues.  For instance, according to senior Brotherhood member Essan el-Erian, during the Iranian hostage crisis, the Carter Administration asked then-Brotherhood General Guide Umar el-Telmessani to intercede with Khomeini to release the captives.  The Brotherhood agreed on humanitarian grounds and sought Anwar Sadat’s approval for the request.  However, when Telmessani traveled to Tehran Khomeini reportedly refused to meet him.

The 1979 Soviet invasion of Aghanistan offered a tantalizing and tangible way to utilize Islam to inflict damage on the Soviet Union.  While there is speculation, much of it unfounded, on the relationship between the U.S. and the Afghan Arabs, there is no doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood’s vast networks of contacts, institutions, and personalities played a critical role in the mobilization and logistics behind the Afghan jihad.  It appears that this division, between the Brotherhood’s significant logistical and mobilization capabilities and the group’s studied aversion to participating on the battlefield, presaged conflicts with American overtures.  According to Egyptian analyst Khalil al-Anani, “the Americans wanted Anwar al-Sadat to get the Muslim Brotherhood to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, but the Muslim Brotherhood was none too enthusiastic.”

U.S. Islamist Policy after the Cold War

During the Cold War, abstract debates over Islamists’ commitment to democracy or position toward violence were largely overlooked (or overridden) in favor of discussions of how Islamist groups could be deployed to weaken the Soviet Union.  However soon after the fall of the Soviet Union events throughout the Islamic world forced the U.S. to consider these questions.  Although the Bush H.W Bush and Clinton Administrations attempted to articulate a general vision towards Islamist groups, these policy pronouncements ended up sounding vague and contradictory.  Although these statements are commendable for their repeated insistence that the U.S. does not see Islam as an enemy and that terrorism is a religious, not Islamic, phenomenon, beneath the rhetoric these speeches betrayed at best unease towards the place of Islamist groups in the post-Cold War Middle East.

The day after the Soviet Union’s dissolution, Algerians voted for candidates from the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in the first round of Parliamentary elections, and the group stood poised to capture a comfortable majority in the upcoming second round.  Before those elections could be held, however, on January 11, 1992 the Algerian military intervened to annul the results of the elections.  Two months later the FIS dissolved, and the country tumbled into civil war.  U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, in office during the coup, later reflected on the episode.  “Generally speaking, when you support democracy, you take what democracy gives you” Baker mused, “If it gives you a radical Islamic fundamentalist, you’re supposed to live with it. We didn’t live with it in Algeria because we felt that the radical fundamentalists’ views were so adverse to what we believe in and what we support, and to what we understood the national interests of the United States to be.”

The Algerian fiasco was only one in a series of political events that highlighted the growing prominence of Islamist groups.  In Jordan, the Brotherhood had long participated in the country’s cramped political system, making significant gains in the 1989 elections and taking cabinet positions in 1991.  The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood had participated in parliamentary elections in 1984 and 1987, although the group had joined other opposition forces in boycotting the 1990 election.  Newer Islamist groups had also began to participate in politics.  The Welfare Party in Turkey first participated in municipal elections in 1989, and sent 62 MPs to Parliament in the Fall 1991 general elections, while Hezbollah’s first foray into politics came in Lebanon’s Summer/Fall 1992 Parliamentary elections.

Late in the George H.W. Bush administration the American government began to articulate exactly how Islamists fit into U.S. foreign policy.  Six months after the coup in Algeria, on June 2, 1992, Edward Djereian, then serving as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, (in between stints as U.S. Ambassador to Syria (1988-1991) and Israel (1993)) delivered a landmark speech on U.S. Middle East policy at Meridian House, a prominent conference center in Washington, D.C.  As Djerejian explained in his memoir, he was “increasingly concerned that, in search of a new enemy, we would begin to define Islam as the next ‘-ism’ the United States would have to confront.  Given my responsibilities for Near Eastern Affairs in the State Department, I thought it important for the U.S. government to begin to enunciate its assessment of the forces at play in the Middle East and its approach toward Muslim countries in general.”

In the speech itself, which Robert Satloff calls “the founding text of U.S. official documents on Islam and Islamism” Djerejian attempted to disabuse the audience of the notion that the U.S. had settled on Islam as next threat.   At the same time, however, Djerejian subtly signaled Washington’s hostility to Islamist movements, indirectly conjuring the specter of Algeria to argue “we are wary of those who would use the democratic process to come to power, only to destroy that very process in order to retain power and political dominance. We believe in the principle of one person, one vote.  We do not support “one person, one vote, one time.”  However Djerejian did not specify how exactly these judgments would be made or provide examples of specific parties that met, or did not meet, his criteria.

The Clinton Administration’s emphasis on a strategy of democratic “enlargement” put the dilemma Djerejian articulated in starker relief. As Clinton National Security Advisor Anthony Lake explained, in cases where the Administration was forced to choose between democracy and Islamists, democracy would lose out. Speaking at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in May of 1994 Lake argued that what set “Islamic Extremists” apart was their use of “religion to cover [their] real intentions — the naked pursuit of political power.”  Lake’s formulation suggested that it was not the method (the use of violence, for instance) that marked any particular Islamic group out as an extremist, it was the attempt to use religion to realize political goals.  This left Islamist groups with two options to win Washington’s official favor: cease to be Islamic, or retreat into political quietism.

As the above sketch shows, beyond a vague hostility, official U.S. statements toward Islamist groups during the period were largely distinguished by their generality and contradictions.  Two general factors were responsible for the inability of the U.S. government to issue a more specific formal statement about Islamism.  Primarily, it is an enduring characteristic that Islamist groups, even those that can trace their intellectual heritage back to the Muslim Brotherhood, are profoundly influenced by national conditions. Because of this, articulating a single policy is not sufficient to cover the variety of Islamist organizations.

Secondly, the pre-eminence of national level conditions is mirrored in the U.S. government.  The Foreign Service bureaucracy, and even much of the intelligence community, is organized along national lines.  There are country “desks,” but less attention paid to transnational issues, especially ones such as political Islam, seen as relatively unimportant in early 1990s.  This matters because it forces analysts and policymakers to accommodate local governments in their policies.  For instance, Islamist groups in Jordan and Morocco are legal and participants in the political process, while in Egypt (historically) and currently in Syria the Brotherhood is illegal.  Thus to grant legitimacy to an organization, for instance by publicly mentioning it in a speech, may play differently in Cairo than in Amman. Not only does the bureaucratic structure make it difficult to set an official policy, it makes it difficult to even communicate across units.  Participants in debates over U.S. Islamist policies during the 1990s described the deliberations as “fractured, disorganized, and inconclusive.”

It is also important to note that despite the lack of a formally-articulated policy on Islamists, there were, throughout the 1990s, official, if low-level, contacts between U.S. officials and the Muslim Brotherhood.  Multiple sources report that the U.S. government, particularly the State Department and CIA, began a dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt during the mid-1990s.  Basing the account on “interviews with multiple participants, some now located at the White House and others at the State Department and CIA” Steve Coll argues that the U.S. Embassy in Cairo “reached out cautiously” to the Brotherhood, but “the dialogue never went very far.” 

Gerges claims that the contacts were part of a tentative attempt to assess potential post-Mubarak futures for Egypt, but were cut off over U.S. officials’ concerns that continuing the contacts would weaken the Mubarak regime, a pillar of American strategy in the region.  French scholar of Islam Gilles Kepel largely concurs.  When Mubarak discovered the outreach he was furious.  In an interview with American journalist Mary Anne Weaver, Mubarak raged “Your government is in contact with these terrorists [emphasis in the original] from the Muslim Brotherhood.  This has all been done very secretly, without our knowledge at first.  You think you can correct the mistakes that you made in Iran, where you had no contact with Ayatollah Khomeini and his fanatic groups before they seized power.”  U.S. officials, wary of alienating Mubarak or otherwise weakening a key client in the Middle East, vastly dialed the contacts back. 

Islamist Groups in the Eyes of the Bush Administration

One immediate result of the 9/11 attacks was the removal of overt contact between Islamist groups and the U.S. government from the agenda.   While the Brotherhood (along with a host of other Islamist groups, including Hamas), condemned the attack, the atmosphere became charged with suspicion.  It did not help that leading American policymakers appeared to send mixed signals about the Brotherhood.  For instance, three months after the attacks, Vice President Cheney  (mistakenly) claimed that the Muslim Brotherhood had a hand in the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.  While Muslim Brotherhood organizations protested the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, members were also nervous of being officially labeled a terrorist organization and thus lumped in with the jihadists.

However it was only in response to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in early 2003 that most Islamist organizations officially ceased contacts with the U.S.  The result was that,  even in those countries (such as Morocco and Jordan) where there had been historically collegial relations between the U.S. and Islamist parties, there was little contact for the remainder of the Bush Administration.  A November 2009 dispatch from the U.S. embassy in Amman straightforwardly notes that:  “The Embassy has begun a quiet yet deliberate process of reestablishing contacts with Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood (JMB) and the Islamic Action Front (IAF) political party, relationships that have languished since September 11, 2001.” 

The Bush Administration’s refusal to seriously consider contacts continued even as the Administration began to loudly trumpet its democracy promotion agenda.  For instance, even at the height of Bush’s emphasis on democracy promotion, when Secretary of State Rice travelled to Cairo to speak about the necessity of democratic reform in the Arab World, and Egypt in particular, she denied contacts between the U.S. and the Brotherhood.  Responding to an audience member’s question after her speech at the American University of Cairo, the Secretary asserted, “we have not engaged with the Muslim Brotherhood. And we won’t.”  The secretary fell back on Egyptian law (the Brotherhood was formally illegal) to defend her position: “Egypt has its laws, it has its rule of law, and I’ll respect that.”

Ironically, during this time the Egyptian Brotherhood was attempting to restart dialogue with the Bush Administration, starting an initiative entitled “Reintroducing the Brotherhood to the West.”  There were two specific items on the group’s agenda.  First, the group hoped to spur the Bush Administration (as well as the European nations) to be more vocal about the human and civil rights violations the Mubarak government committed against the group, in the same way the West would often bring up the abuse of secular activists.  Secondly, some in the Brotherhood worried that they would potentially be designated a terrorist organization.

As part of the general outreach, prominent Brotherhood member Khairat al-Shater penned an op-ed in the Guardian.  Tellingly entitled “no need to be afraid of us,” al-Shater used the column to argue the group’s democratic bona fides, telling his western audience that the Brotherhood “believe[s] that the domination of political life by a single political party or group, whether the ruling party, the Muslim Brotherhood or any other, is not desirable: the only result of such a monopoly is the alienation of the majority of the people.”  A further part of the strategy included creating an official English-language website, www.ikhwanweb.com, to disseminate information about the group and increase contact with western researchers.

The election of Hamas in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections in completely submerged the attempts. The election was widely considered free and fair, and there was even a period, a “millisecond,” according to a senior State Department official, where the U.S. considered letting the election run its course to see how Hamas would respond.  Instead, the U.S. settled on a policy that convinced many across the Middle East that American rhetoric on democracy masked the same old policies.  Working in concert with Arab allies, including Egypt and Jordan, the U.S. backed Fatah strongman Mahmud Dahlan and encouraged him to confront Hamas and hopefully dislodge them from government.  The plan backfired when Hamas pre-emptively attacked Dahlan’s forces and, after a brief period of fighting, routed them.  Whatever the statements and assurances emanating from Washington, the Hamas fiasco showed that, as in Algeria, policymakers were determined to destroy democracy in order to save it.

However even while the Bush Administration was plotting with its Arab allies to overthrow Hamas, it was tacitly encouraging Muslim Brotherhood groups in Iraq and Syria.  These episodes, particularly in Syria, show how the Bush Administration was not averse to working with Islamist groups in the service of broader strategic goals.  In these cases, Sunni Islamist groups were well positioned to apply pressure to Iranian allies in Damascus and Baghdad.

While Syria had dodged inclusion on President Bush’s infamous “Axis of Evil” in the 2002 State of the Union address, the regime’s alliance with bête noire Iran, support for the Iraq insurgency and continued support for Israeli foes Hamas and Hezbollah put Damascus squarely in Washington’s sights.  In late 2006, the New York Times revealed that certain members of the Bush Administration had explored options for toppling Bashar al-Assad, which included “hearing what [the Muslim Brotherhood] has to say” and meeting with the National Salvation Front, an umbrella group which counted the Syrian Muslim Brothers among its prominent members.  Other administration officials had travelled to Syria to meet activists “with close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood” (membership in the Brotherhood is a capital offense in Syria and, at that time, the group was completely underground).  A year later, citing a retired CIA official, Seymour Hersh wrote that “The Americans have provided both political and financial support [to the NSF]. The Saudis are taking the lead with financial support, but there is American involvement.”  Across the border, the Lebanese Muslim Brotherhood (al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya) joined with the pro-American March 14 alliance against the March 8 alliance, which included Hezbollah and was seen as pro-Syrian/Iranian.

In Iraq, the Bush Administration supported the inclusion of the Iraqi Islamic Party, with roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, in the post-Saddam government.  Tareq al-Hashemi, then leader of the party and vice president of Iraq, frequently met with president Bush and top officials (continuing into the Obama Administration), to the consternation of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood members.  As a 2007 report in al-Sharq al-Awsat claimed, “there is significant communication and deliberations between Americans and the MB members who participate in Iraq’s present government and who also considerably engage in civil life – Iraq’s MB group are the only ones who have their own television channel, Baghdad satellite channel.”  As in Syria, the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood could serve as a valuable counterweight to expanding Iranian influence. 

The Moderation Debate, Revisited

While the Bush Administration kept Islamist movements largely on the sidelines, throughout 2006 and 2007 a series of articles appeared which advocated greater engagement between Washington and Islamist movements, particularly in the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.  On the one side were those arguing that the U.S. should expand efforts to engage with Islamist groups and bring more pressure on Middle Eastern regimes to democratize.  These advocates of greater dialogue were countered by those who argued that the U.S. needed to maintain a posture of hostility towards Islamist movements while increasing security and intelligence cooperation with Middle Eastern clients to fortify them against the Islamist challenge. 

The Accomodationists

Within six months of each other in 2007, a series of articles on Islamist groups appeared in leading American publications.  While positing slightly different arguments, Shadi Hamid in Democracy, Robert S. Leiken and Steven Brooke in Foreign Affairs, Marc Lynch in Foreign Policy, James Traub in The New York Times, and Ken Silverstein in Harpers all recommended a similar course of action: the Bush Administration’s needed to seriously consider deepening contacts with Islamists.  While all the articles were based on extended conversations with Islamists in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and elsewhere, what separated these reports from prior articles was that all these articles appeared in mainstream, establishment outlets, including Foreign Affairs, the flagship journal of the Council on Foreign Relations.    

The authors’ generally deployed three types of arguments based on either pragmatism, the ideological transformation of Islamist groups, or on national security grounds.  Often, these arguments overlapped.  The first of these arguments cast the choice to engage Islamists as simple pragmatism.  Islamists are powerful and well-entrenched, and have to be accounted for in formulating policy initiatives towards the Muslim World.  As Hamid put it, “Only Islamists have the mobilizing capacity and grassroots support to pressure Middle Eastern regimes to democratize. Thus, in not engaging groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, the United States cuts itself off from large constituencies whose participation is vital to the process of political change.”  For Graham Fuller, a former CIA official, the Brotherhood “is the preeminent movement in the Muslim world.” Leiken and Brooke likewise suggest that the Brotherhood plays a far larger and more significant role in Middle Eastern societies than do “liberal” Muslim groups historically favored by the West. 

Another facet of accomodationists’ arguments is that while Islamist groups may not be liberals, they have accepted the basic precepts of electoral democracy (these arguments, implicitly or explicitly, reject Djerejian’s dilemma).  As Silverstein argues: “The new Islamic movements are popularly based and endorse free elections, the rotation of power, freedom of speech, and other concepts that are scorned by the regimes that currently hold power. Islamist groups have peacefully accepted electoral defeat, even when it was obvious that their governments had engaged in gross fraud to assure their hold on power. In parliaments, Islamists have not focused on implementing theocracy or imposing shari‘ah but have instead fought for political and social reforms, including government accountability.” These arguments are supported by Mona El-Ghobashy’s more academic take on ideological and organizational change in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

The third argument from the accomodationists, spurred on by 9/11, posits that the U.S. should explore engagement with Islamist groups not because they may or may not be democrats, but because by rejecting violence as a method of sociopolitical change they can help isolate more violent elements such as al-Qa’ida.  More generally, this argument rejects Lake’s criteria for extremism by explicitly judging Islamist groups on what they do, rather than what they are. As Leiken and Brooke argue: “Jihadists loathe the Muslim Brotherhood…for rejecting global jihad and embracing democracy. These positions seem to make them moderates, the very thing the United States, short on allies in the Muslim world, seeks.”  In a later piece, Hamid and Brooke explicitly connect democracy promotion, engagement with Islamists, and marginalization of jihadists.

Two basic policy recommendations flowed from the accomodationists’ analysis.  First, the U.S. should begin a process of reaching out to Islamist groups that have rejected violence.  While the precise mechanics of “engagement” are often unspecified, the idea generally includes the U.S. beginning a formal dialogue with Islamist groups, both listening to their arguments and communicating the official U.S. position.  This dialogue will also force Islamist groups to articulate clearly their positions and move from generally vague slogans and platforms to concrete policy ideas, providing the U.S. with information about these groups.  Secondarily, this dialogue will grant legitimacy and support to non-violent Islamists, further sidelining jihadist groups. 

The U.S. should, at the same time, encourage its regional allies to implement serious democratic reforms, including (but not limited to) allowing non-violent Islamists into the political process.  The U.S. should also take a much more vocal stand whenever Islamists are persecuted and arrested without cause.  Traditionally, the U.S. has been willing to publicly raise the issue of the detention of secular figures (Ayman Nour, for instance) but ignore similar actions against Islamist figures.  This silence was justified with arguments that the U.S. refused to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries.

There were some public indications that the Bush administration was taking seriously some of these recommendations. Most prominently, during the same span of time in which these articles were published, two prominent democratic congressmen, including David Price and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, met publicly with Muslim Brotherhood officials.  The key interlocutor on the Brotherhood side was Saad el-Katany, then head of the Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc (and now Speaker of Parliament), who kept in regular contact with the U.S. Embassy’s political office.  However, these arguments failed to filter through to the level of policy during the Bush Administration.

The Confrontationalists

The accomodationists’ recommendations did not go unchallenged, and critics began to argue that instead of engagement, Washington needed to not only avoid dialogue with Islamist groups, all such organizations should be treated as actively hostile to the U.S.  In 2007 Mitt Romney, then in his first run as a presidential candidate, answered a question about Osama Bin Laden by arguing that the U.S. should target the Muslim Brotherhood: “I don’t want to buy into the Democratic pitch that this is all about one person (Bin Laden) because after we get him, there’s going to be another and another…This is about Hezbollah and Hamas and Al Qaida and the Muslim Brotherhood. This is a worldwide jihadist effort to try and cause the collapse of all moderate Islamic governments and replace them with a caliphate…It’s more than Osama bin Laden.

As Romney’s argument shows, a key feature of the confrontationalist argument is that there is no point in differentiating between Islamist groups on the basis of their attitudes towards violence.  The identity of these groups, as Islamists, is sufficient to set them at odds with the U.S.  Such a “culturalist” approach to understanding Muslim behavior has a long pedigree, but received a boost with Huntington’s publication of “the Clash of Civilizations” in the summer 1993.  Although Huntington’s argument has often been caricatured, his central contention is that, in the post-Cold War era more and more individuals will look to entrenched, primordial identities (such as religion) to guide behavior.  In terms of Islamist groups, this means that there is no use distinguishing violent from non-violent groups- these are simply tactical differences.  As Daniel Pipes argues, the Brotherhood “is deeply hostile to the United States and must be treated as one vital component of the enemy’s assault force.” More breathlessly, Youssef Ibrahim warns “splitting hairs by arguing that Osama kills in the name of God and a pie-in-the-sky heavenly caliphate while the more pragmatic Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) are trying to rule on earth will make little difference to those who will be in the mass graves.”

Because Islamists act on the basis of identity and are essentially impervious to ordinary political incentives and consequences, in power they would be implacable opponents of the U.S.  Quandt echoes the apprehension surrounding what Islamists may do in power: “the achievements of the past could be lost if, for example, the regime in Egypt changed suddenly [or] if radical Islamic movements gained ground.”  The accomodationists counter that while some portion of Islamists’ policies will surely run counter to U.S. national interests, Islamists will have to compromise and accommodate realities on the ground.  As Norton, a longtime observer of Islamist groups, argues “life is constrained by practical realities. The question of the Brotherhood’s intentions is interesting to discuss over coffee, but it’s not a real question. There are structural constraints regarding what they could do, including what the army would allow and what the public would tolerate.”


As in the first approach, confrontationalist policies are a logical consequence of the diagnosis.  The core policy prescription of this current is to dramatically reinforce key U.S. pillars in the region. Regional clients should therefore not be chastised for violations of human rights or subjected to public criticism of their domestic policies.  Islamists must be countered aggressively, ensuring the continuation of U.S. primacy via intelligence cooperation and security and military assistance.  As Satloff argues, Islamists only win when the state falters:

Islamist movements rarely, if ever, “win”; rather, regimes lose—they give up, lose allies, seek an early compromise, or the like. Conversely, the successful defense of regimes against Islamist challenges has been largely a factor of the strength, backbone, and will of the regime, not the lack of support, ingenuity, or determination on the part of the Islamists.

A subsidiary of this approach is a general skepticism of the utility of promoting democracy in the Middle East (whose immediate beneficiaries would be Islamist groups).   This policy recommendation occasionally creates tension when individuals who are ostensibly dedicated to promoting democracy find themselves supporting authoritarian regimes, or attempting to topple democratically-elected governments (as in the Palestinian Territories).  Joshua Muravchik illustrated this tension when he argued that engaging with the Muslim Brotherhood means abandoning democracy and “mak[ing] our peace with powerful indigenous forces.” 

The confrontationalist perspective also aligns with foreign governments, who encourage the U.S. government (both publicly and privately) to maintain its hard line towards Islamist movements.  Not coincidentally, this would also keep the aid dollars flowing to the regimes themselves.  Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Arab regimes generally tried to use their own violent, internal insurrections to reorient their relations with the U.S.  Particularly, these regimes attempted to connect non-violent Islamists to the jihadists seeking to topple the governments.  As Egypt’s Interior Minister explained, “They (terrorists) all came out from under the turban of the Muslim Brotherhood.”  As the reporter (Youssef Ibrahim, from the “mass graves” quote above) went on to summarize, the stance was “widely echoed by security officials in Algeria, Tunisia, Jordan and Morocco, all of whom are preoccupied by a continuing battle against terrorism.”  Despite Islamist attempts to separate themselves- in both word and deed- from their violent counterparts, the regimes persisted in making the connection.

The 9/11 attacks and American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan cemented these relationships.  As Brownlee shows, throughout the 1990s the U.S.- Egyptian strategic relationship began to shift from one with the military at its core to a more low-profile set of interactions based on intelligence and counterterrorism cooperation.  Whereas the U.S. once needed Egyptian tanks to face down threats of a Soviet push into the Middle East, during the 90s, and especially after 9/11, the U.S. needed Egypt’s intelligence networks and torture chambers.  As a former CIA officer described the relationship, America’s clients “know the language they need to speak to ensure our continued support, so they raise the Islamist threat and we fall for it, because we want their counterterrorism cooperation. That has trumped the idea of democracy.”

Throughout the second part of the 2000s Egyptian officials began unrolling a new line of argument, attempting to paint the Brotherhood as an Iranian cat’s paw in discussions with American government officials.  This would allow the Brotherhood to again be folded into a broadly-defined basket of American enemies in the region.  A cable from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo in advance of Mubarak’s spring 2009 visit to Washington summarized the Egyptian view: “Mubarak and his advisors are now convinced that Tehran is working to weaken Egypt through creation of Hizballah cells, support of the Muslim Brotherhood, and destabilization of Gaza.”  Two months later, in a meeting with Gen. David Petraeus, Egyptian Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman again raised the issue of Iranian support for the Muslim Brotherhood.  Even as protests roiled Tahrir square, Mubarak insisted to American officials that they were the work of the Brotherhood and Iran.

These regimes also held great importance for the way they preserved Israel’s hegemony in the eastern Mediterranean.  If these regimes fell, subsequent governments would be less likely to continue this relationship.  Thus Israeli officials and various self-styled “pro-Israel” commentators have added their voices to the confrontationalists, arguing that Islamist movements be staunchly opposed.  As with the Arab regimes, Israeli officials have tried to tie Israel’s ongoing struggle against terrorism with the terrorism facing the U.S.

While Israeli government officials generally kept a low profile during the Arab Spring, behind the scenes they were pressuring the U.S. to declare outright support for Mubarak’s regime for fear of what would come after.  Israel’s former Ambassador in Cairo darkly intoned, “The only people in Egypt who are committed to peace are the people in Mubarak’s inner circle, and if the next president is not one of them, we are going to be in trouble.”  As a New York Times report summarized, “supporters of Israel in the United States have been focusing on playing up the dangers they see as inherent in a democratic Egyptian government that contains, or is led by, elements of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood…Mrs. Clinton and some of her State Department subordinates wanted to move cautiously, and reassure allies they were not being abandoned, in part influenced by daily calls from Israel, Saudi Arabia and others who feared an Egypt without Mr. Mubarak would destabilize the entire region.”  In the aftermath of the protests, in November 2011, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu argued that the Arab Spring had been a fundamentally

”Islamic, anti-Western, anti-liberal, anti-Israeli, undemocratic wave.”

The Obama Approach

Barack Obama arrived in office January 2009 pledging to renew relations between the U.S. and the rest of the world.  In the Middle East, this pledge began with a June 2009 address in Cairo optimistically titled “a new beginning.”  In that speech, Obama noted that “America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them.  And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments — provided they govern with respect for all their people.  This passage, according to Washington Post journalist David Ignatius, was specifically crafted for the Muslim Brotherhood- and, by extension, Islamists across the region.   In stark contrast to the prior Administration, the Obama Administration invited ten members of the Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc to the speech.

There are also indications that the rhetoric was translated into action.  In Morocco, the U.S. Embassy held meetings with Islamists, noting in a cable that the outreach “represents part of a wider Mission Morocco initiative — in keeping with the momentum and the new tone characterized in the President’s Cairo Speech— to widen our contacts with Moroccan Islamists and others who have traditionally taken hostile stances toward U.S. policy.”  Likewise, in the wake of the Cairo speech, the U.S. Embassy in Jordan also increased contacts with Islamists, including members of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood.

Two personnel appointments also reflected the Obama Administration’s more open attitude towards Islamists.  Peter Mandaville, a Professor at George Mason University in Virginia and author of two books on political Islam, joined the State Department’s Policy Planning staff in January 2011 and was described as “the department’s expert on political Islam.”  Nearly simultaneously, Quintan Wiktorowicz was added to the National Security Council as “Senior Director for Global Engagement.”  Wiktorowicz wrote widely on political Islam before joining government.  His approach to the policy towards Islamists was described by a former colleague as “I want the tent to be as broad as possible. … As long as they are opposed to extremism and terrorism, I want everyone to be part of the coalition.”

Islamists Amidst the Arab Spring

During the emergence of protests against Hosni Mubarak the Obama Administration hedged its’ bets and lent diplomatic and rhetorical support to the Egyptian regime.  As the protests grew and the regime began to shudder, the Obama Administration began to advocate an “orderly transition” designed to demobilize protestors and preserve the heart of the regime via a handoff to Vice President and intelligence chief Omar Suleiman.  When the Tahrir demonstrators made that option moot, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), an unelected conglomeration of military officials, stepped in and assumed control of the transition.  As the SCAF guided the transition process (and protected its own prerogatives), the U.S. sought to preserve the longstanding security relationship with Egypt’s generals. 

Early on in the process the Muslim Brotherhood entered the discussion, leading the Republican opposition to hammer the president.  Then-presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty indicted Obama for “undermin[ing] allies in Israel” while “trying to appease…the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.”  “With bullies,” Pawlenty asserted, “might makes right.  Strength makes them submit.  Get tough on our enemies, not our friends.” 

While opponents offered platitudes, the Administration was forced to accommodate events on the ground.  Official White House statements contained no explicit references to the Muslim Brotherhood, but privately officials did not rule out dealing with the group.  According to White House staff, in private discussions Obama noted the possibility of engagement with what the New York Times described as “nonsecular parties: diplomatic-speak for the Muslim Brotherhood.”  However as the SCAF took over the transition and began to set the timeline for elections, the U.S receded into the background, only interacting with the Muslim Brotherhood by funding various NGO initiatives aimed at party building and political education that sometimes included FJP members.

In fact, the Administration’s first high-level, on the record statement on the Muslim Brotherhood came following a meeting between Secretary Clinton and the Hungarian Prime Minister.  Arshad Mohammed from Reuters queried the Secretary on the U.S. policy towards engagement with the Brotherhood. “With respect to the Muslim Brotherhood,” Clinton responded, “the Obama Administration is continuing the approach of limited contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood that has existed on and off for about five or six years. 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…I think that the importance here is that this is not a new policy, but it is one that we are reengaging in because of the upcoming elections… 

Although Clinton attempted to pitch the policy as simply a continuation of the existing approach to the group, it was undoubtedly a departure.  Saad El-Katany, Secretary-General of the Brotherhood’s new political party, the Freedom and Justice Party, confirmed that “no contacts [with the Americans] have been made with the group or the party.”

Despite Clinton’s statements, high-level contact between the Brotherhood and senior U.S. officials did not materialize until after Egypt’s parliamentary elections.  When the initial stages of the staggered elections suggested a significant Brotherhood contingent in parliament, senior officials began to formally seek out members.  In early December John Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Committee Foreign Relations, visited with senior Brotherhood officials in Cairo.  In early January 2012 Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey D. Feltman met with FJP officials, followed later in the month by Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, the second-ranking official in the State Department (behind Secretary of State Clinton).   That same month, the New York Times asserted that the meetings were part of “a historic shift” in U.S. foreign policy towards the Islamist group.

The April Visit of FJP

The visits were reciprocated in April 2012, when a delegation of Muslim Brotherhood/FJP political officials travelled to the U.S.  The delegation’s itinerary included meetings with the editorial board of the Washington Post and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in addition to events at the Council on Foreign Relations, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Georgetown University.  The delegation also attended meetings with officials in the White House (the National Security Council) and the State Department, as well as on Capitol Hill. 

While procedurally speaking the visit of a delegation from the governing party of an American ally was mundane, this week-long sojourn ignited controversy.  This reaction, in turn, provides a useful chance to highlight the familiar lines of the moderate/radical debate.  For instance, in a story on the trip, the Washington Post editorialized that the delegation was part of a “charm offensive.”  The report also suggested that audiences should be skeptical of the delegation because “those sent on the trip said they were chosen in part for their fluency in English and their familiarity and ease with American culture.”  A CNN story took a similar line, suggesting that the visit was orchestrated as “a global goodwill tour to soften the group’s image.”

That the visit coincided with the Brotherhood’s decision to nominate a candidate for president, in violation of an earlier pledge, also spurred charges of the Brotherhood’s duplicitousness and cunning.  Eric Trager, writing at the Washington Institute for Near East policy, argued that the Brotherhood “is now pursuing outright political dominance. The MB’s reversal of its oft-repeated pledge not to run a presidential candidate also suggests that it cannot be trusted… the Brotherhood’s pursuit of a political monopoly undermines prospects for democracy in Egypt and threatens to intensify political instability — a scenario that should deeply alarm U.S. policymakers. 

U.S. policymakers, however, were reportedly comfortable, and perhaps even sanguine, with the developments in Cairo.  The Brotherhood candidate, Khairat al-Shater was a known quantity for both foreign diplomats and the SCAF, and had met with multiple delegations from Washington.  Contrary to Trager, policymakers interpreted the Brotherhood’s decision to run a candidate as a decision based not on a desire to pursue a political monopoly, but as part of a strategy to forestall gains by the more fundamentalist, and more unpredictable, Salafist candidate Hazem Abu Ismail.  As the New York Times’ Cairo correspondent put it, “American policy makers who once feared a Brotherhood takeover now appear to see the group as an indispensable ally against Egypt’s ultraconservatives.”

An Islamist Future?

The most significant implication of the Arab Spring is one that has little to do with Islamists.  For the first time the U.S. will seriously have to factor in the position of Arab opinion, whether expressed in Islamic terms or not, when crafting policies that affect the Arab world.  Alliances with Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak gave U.S. policymakers the luxury of ignoring Egyptian public opinion.  As former Egyptian Ambassador to the U.S. Nabil Fahmy argued in the wake of Mubarak’s ouster, “For years, the U.S. body politic has had no respect for Arab public opinion. When we would convey the public sentiment to our American interlocutors they would ignore or snicker!”  The import, according to Fahmy, was basically that now the U.S. would need to work harder to pursue its strategic interests in the Arab World: “When we would say, ‘The Israelis need to go back to the 1967 borders,’ [American officials] would say, ‘Well, the Israelis have a coalition government, and there is this small, minute, political party that is way off the wall here but holds the seat in some subcommittee.’ Well, we have it too. So yes, you are going to see a much more assertive Egypt, an Egypt that is not less concerned with strategic objectives – they won’t change – but much more concerned with immediate short-term things. 

In broad terms, Egypt’s importance to the U.S. stems from its international orientation and strategic position, not from domestic characteristics.  The weak presidency and the continuing dominance of the military in Egyptian politics means that Egyptian politicians will be unable to exercise significant influence when it comes to the types of foreign and defense issues of concern to the U.S.  On those issues the military will, in essence, retain a veto- one that, due to powerful ties between the Egyptian and American militaries and intelligence agencies- the U.S. will have a say in.  For instance, while there is increasing public support for annulling the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, at 61% in the May 2012 Pew Poll, the fact that this would end U.S. economic assistance to Egypt (including military aid) places public opinion at loggerheads with military as well as American prerogatives.  Ending the treaty remains a risky option for Egypt, economically, militarily, and diplomatically, and at least for the time being president Morsi has pledged to uphold Egypt’s international obligations.  However it is likely that the U.S. and Israel will experience far less cooperation than they have come to expect on day-to-day issues regarding the Palestinians.  For example, the policy of blockading and isolating Gaza will likely find little support in Egypt.  Similarly, while U.S. overflight and Suez transit rights are unlikely to be disrupted, the Egyptian government will possibly attempt to use these questions to increase diplomatic leverage.          

However politicians, including Islamist ones, will have increasing incentives to resort to nationalist and, at times, anti-American appeals.  The continuing resonance of these themes among Arab publics offers a ready-made resource for politicians seeking to mobilize supporters for both electoral and bureaucratic purposes.  In Egypt, civilian authorities seeking to buttress their position against the continuing military interference in politics will likely find that nationalist appeals yield promise.  Of course, these appeals will also carry an international cost: the rhetoric will cause western leaders to reassess relations with local governments.  Increasingly public criticisms will also cause political problems for those foreign leaders, particularly among their own domestic oppositions seeking a political advantage.  The challenge for Western policymakers will be to recognize the domestic targets of this rhetoric, while working to sort out and address legitimate grievances from strategically-deployed appeals.   

The ascent of Islamists to power in Egypt also provides a test-case for Islamist groups throughout the region.  As Algeria and the case of Hamas showed, the U.S. was never comfortable with Islamist groups coming to power, even through democratic means.  Now in Egypt and Tunisia the U.S. is forced to deal with the very scenario that prior administrations sought to forestall.        

This paper first appeared in the E-Book, The West and the Muslim Brotherhood After the Arab Spring, co-published in 2013 by Al-Mesbar Center for Research and Studies and the Foreign Policy Research Institute.