Category: News

Title: The Foreign Relations of Islamist Movements

Author: Dr. Abdullah Al-Arian
Date Published: May 6, 2019

Prof. Abdullah Al-Arian discusses how Islamist movements have historically viewed diplomacy as important to their activist missions.

By Dr. Abdullah Al-Arian

During the spring of 2013, Egypt’s recently appointed minister of planning and international cooperation made a trip to Washington, D.C. Despite having won the first free elections in the nation’s history, the government of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamad Morsi was faced with a crisis of legitimacy. Elements of the country’s revolutionary factions had begun to close ranks with the military and state intelligence agencies in the hopes of unseating the Arab region’s first Islamist president. As pressure mounted, Amr Darrag traveled to Washington to meet with high-level U.S. officials with the aim of securing assurances that the Obama administration would continue to support Egypt’s tenuous transition to democracy. From his many meetings with the international press and foreign diplomats, Darrag was clearly one of the more affable members of Morsi’s government, demonstrating a strong command of English stemming from his days as a Ph.D. student in engineering at Purdue University. But as a member of a long-suppressed opposition movement whose professional career was limited to academia, Darrag had no experience in diplomacy and an inadequate ability to read the intentions of seasoned U.S. officials such as Secretary of State John Kerry.

Officially, the U.S. continued to express support for Egypt’s post-Mubarak transition throughout the crisis that engulfed Morsi’s presidency. Earlier that year, during a visit to Cairo, Kerry assured his hosts that “the United States can and wants to do more,” as he announced the release of $250 million in economic assistance that had been frozen by Congress. Just four months later, on July 3, Morsi was toppled by a military coup led by his defense minister, Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, as U.S. officials watched with what can only be described as muted enthusiasm. As the New York Times’ David Kirkpatrick reported, top Obama administration officials from Kerry to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel maintained far deeper ties with the Egyptian military than they did with the Morsi government, with Hagel even going as far as to provide Sisi with assurances that the U.S. would not interfere with the military’s desire to protect the country against disorder. Six weeks later, Darrag could do little more than pen an opinion piece in the New York Times that took US officials to task for their explicit support of the coup, singling out Kerry’s “astonishing remark” that Sisi was “restoring democracy” in Egypt amid the violent repression of anti-coup protesters.

A History of Engagement

Building primarily on the experiences of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood as well as those of other Islamist groups across the region, the past decade has seen a significant rise in curiosity regarding the ability (or inability, as the case may be) of Islamist actors to engage successfully in the international diplomatic arena, and with the United States in particular. As the sole remaining superpower, particularly after the end of the Cold War, and one with an outsized level of influence over their respective states, a positive working relationship with the US (or at least its tacit acceptance) has long been viewed as necessary for the ability of Islamists to maneuver within a highly precarious domestic political scene.

By Mohammad Imad Mahhouk. This work by Mahhouk is based on a well-known line by Tunisian poet Abul-Qasim Al-Shabbi: “Should the people one day truly aspire to life, then fate must answer their call.” Mahhouk says this verse became a source of great hope with the start of the Arab uprisings. Through the shapes and colors of this piece, he has tried to capture that hope--a hope he believes can overcome any oppression.
By Mohammad Imad Mahhouk. This work by Mahhouk is based on a well-known line by Tunisian poet Abul-Qasim Al-Shabbi: “Should the people one day truly aspire to life, then fate must answer their call.” Mahhouk says this verse became a source of great hope with the start of the Arab uprisings. Through the shapes and colors of this piece, he has tried to capture that hope–a hope he believes can overcome any oppression.

To the extent that a non-state actor can have “foreign relations,” social movements in the tradition of the Muslim Brotherhood actually have a long history of considering diplomacy as a significant component of their activist missions. In one of his famous “Six Tracts,” the Muslim Brotherhood’s founder Hasan al-Banna wrote that his movement’s advocacy in favor of an Islamic order should not represent “a disturbing influence on relations with the West.” Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood was established in Ismailiyya at a time when the city was still under British occupation and, in addition to the nation’s competing political forces, Banna also had to manage his relations with Egypt’s colonial rulers carefully. As historian Beth Baron has shown, the role of Christian missionaries, largely supported by British officials, played an oft-overlooked role in the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to prominence during the interwar era.

There is another important reason that distinguishes the Muslim Brotherhood’s need to legitimize itself as a potential actor on the diplomatic stage. As the movement formulated its ideological program for an Islamic political and social order that challenged the emerging political structures of post-colonial Egypt, the nation’s ruling elites and their foreign sponsors feared that political Islam represented a dangerous departure from the norms of international relations as established in the aftermath of World War I. However, the Muslim Brotherhood internalized modern conceptions of the nation-state quite early in its development, formally binding its mission to the realities of the international order. Even as the movement spread beyond Egypt’s borders, local branches in surrounding Arab states were quick to distance themselves from the mother movement and demonstrated a commitment to pursuing their activism within the boundaries of the nation-state.

By the 1950s, Cold War tensions ensured that U.S. officials would not pass up the opportunity to promote their anti-Soviet policies by making inroads with a movement that offered strong internal critiques of communism. In advance of a 1953 trip by Muslim scholars to an academic conference at Princeton University, the director of the U.S. Information Agency argued that “the Muslims will be impressed with the moral and spiritual strength of America.” Hoping to entice the White House to schedule a meeting between President Dwight Eisenhower and Saeed Ramadan, a leading Muslim Brotherhood figure, he added, “these individuals can exert a profound and far-reaching impact upon Moslem thinking. Their long-term influence may well outweigh that of the political leaders of their countries.” This high-profile encounter notwithstanding, there is little evidence to support the conclusion espoused by some that the Muslim Brotherhood was enlisted as a Cold War ally of the U.S. Subsequent contacts usually broke down over continued U.S. support for the British presence in Egypt, and its recognition of the recently established state of Israel at the expense of Palestinian rights. For its part, the Eisenhower administration appeared to shift its focus from civil society opposition figures like Ramadan to Saudi Arabia’s King Saud, who in turn offered safe haven to Muslim Brotherhood leaders following Nasser’s violent crackdown on the movement in 1954.

Islamists and the Politics of Power

Decades later, U.S. Cold War policy in the Middle East had been firmly implanted in support of secular authoritarian rulers or conservative monarchs, with little need for engagement with the Islamist opposition, much of which had been ruthlessly repressed. The most notable exception was the high-profile coordination between U.S. officials and the Afghan Mujahideen, who sent a delegation to Washington in 1983 for a meeting with President Ronald Reagan to discuss the ongoing response to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Two years later, the Sudanese president, Jafaar an-Nimeiri, was also hosted by the White House, as he came in search of much-needed economic aid. A month earlier, Vice-President George H.W. Bush had visited Sudan, where he criticized Nimeiri’s alliance with Sudanese Islamists. Having come to power through a military coup in 1969, Nimeiri’s unpopularity had caused him to seek out new forms of legitimacy, leading to a shaky alliance with the National Islamic Front and its leader, Hasan al- Turabi. Nimeiri appointed Turabi as his Attorney General and approved the implementation of sharia legal statutes, before abruptly dismissing Turabi and sidelining the Islamists to ease his international isolation. Following Bush’s visit, Nimeiri imprisoned Turabi but, with his domestic alliances exhausted, Nimeiri himself was overthrown by a coup just weeks later while he was in Washington.

That experience proved valuable to Turabi, who understood that the domestic political success of Islamist parties was dependent in part on defusing American pressure. After he came to power as the ideological force behind the 1989 military coup that brought Omar al-Bashir to power, Turabi himself traveled to the U.S. for a charm offensive. During his 1992 visit, Turabi met with the editorial boards of major newspapers, conducted roundtable discussions with policy think tanks, and testified before the Foreign Affairs Committee in Congress. While acknowledging that Islamists viewed the West as a challenge to overcome, particularly in light of the colonial legacy, Turabi noted to his congressional hosts that Islamists admired many ostensibly Western values that have roots in the Islamic tradition, including “the value of participatory, free, consultative government, the value of dignity for the individual, the value of free enterprise.”

When Algeria’s first free elections in 1991 resulted in a sweeping victory for the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), the military intervened to cancel the elections and launched a bloody crackdown against the movement and its supporters. Anwar Haddam, a FIS party leader, left Algeria for the U.S. during the civil war to advocate on behalf of the preservation of democracy and human rights in his embattled country. However, as the Algerian military’s consolidation of power precluded the possibility of a negotiated settlement, Haddam’s ability to reach U.S. officials became increasingly limited. In fact, U.S. authorities later detained him without charge for four years, presumably due to his political ties.

In several monarchical states where Islamist parties represent a significant political force, the tendency has been for the state to shield them from any role in international diplomacy. While parties like the Islamic Action Front in Jordan, Hadas in Kuwait, and al-Minbar in Bahrain have enjoyed some electoral success, their influence has tended to be in the realm of social policy and a role in ministries such as awqaf and Islamic affairs, or education. More recently, the success of the Justice and Development Party (PJD) in Morocco has meant that an Islamist party was tasked with forming a government for the first time under a Moroccan king. Nevertheless, the foreign ministry has been largely staffed by career diplomats rather than PJD figures, partially owing to the continuing suspicions of Islamist political figures among Western policymakers.

“Peace” by Maher Housn from his collection “Drawing with Letters."
“Peace” by Maher Housn from his collection “Drawing with Letters.”

When Hamas leaders decided to contest the 2006 Palestinian elections, thereby recognizing the political structures put in place by the Oslo Peace Accords, the movement’s ensuing victory thrust it onto an international stage for which it was wholly unprepared. In attempting to endure Israel’s debilitating blockade of Gaza, Hamas has since had to develop its ability to navigate the difficult terrain of international diplomacy, particularly as a movement that is labeled a terrorist organization in most Western capitals. It has repeatedly attempted to forge a unity government with its rival Palestinian faction, Fatah, in part to ease the pressure on representing the plight of Palestinians abroad. Those efforts have collapsed under the weight of successive Israeli military campaigns in Gaza over the past decade, as well as the role of other regional powers (particularly Egypt) have played in maintaining a divided Palestinian polity.

Islamist Diplomacy and the Arab Uprisings

If the post-Cold War era was marked by Islamists becoming increasingly engaged in the political processes of their respective states, and thereby in need of a far more developed approach to the question of international diplomacy, the Arab uprisings that began in late 2010 would ramp up the stakes considerably. The prospect of a post-authoritarian political order presented Islamist parties with an opportunity to chart a new course for their countries rooted in democratic legitimacy. As they were soon to discover, however, just as significant was the approval of Western governments with longstanding influence over the political and economic affairs of Arab states. Islamist party leaders went to great lengths to establish their democratic credentials in the eyes of U.S. and European policymakers.

With his party poised to play a leading role in Tunisia’s transition, in 2011 Ennahda’s Rachid al-Ghannouchi visited Washington for meetings with senior Obama administration officials and congressional leaders. In his many public appearances and media interviews, Ghannouchi underscored Ennahda’s commitment to democratic pluralism, protecting the rights of women and minorities, and preserving religious freedom. Moreover, Ennahda sought to reassure its U.S. critics that the party did not wish to interfere with their economic interests nor would its foreign policy aims depart radically from those of the previous regime. In Egypt, Morsi’s government offered similar assurances to U.S. officials, pledging to observe the terms of Egypt’s international treaty obligations, including the peace agreement with Israel, despite the Muslim Brotherhood’s historical opposition to the Camp David Accords.

For their part, from 2011 the Syrian and Libyan branches of the Muslim Brotherhood aimed to position themselves as potential partners in the rebuilding of their countries following the fall of their respective dictatorships. In the civil conflicts that followed, the movements quickly lost ground, overtaken by the violent confrontations between militant groups and a revived authoritarianism. Yemen’s Islah Party was also expected to play a key role in the post-Saleh transition, as one of its leading public figures Tawakkol Karman promoted the interests of Yemen’s revolution globally after she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. But since the 2015 military intervention by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Islah’s role has gradually diminished.

In fact, there is perhaps no better example of the failure of Islamist diplomacy than the success of the Arab counterrevolutions, led primarily by the Saudi and Emirati governments. With the backing of U.S. officials, the Gulf powers did not only extinguish hopes for representative rule in several Arab states, they also waged a successful campaign to banish Islamist movements from civic and political life in unprecedented ways. With few exceptions, today Islamist groups exist underground or in exile, with limited ability to build upon their legacy of advocating on behalf of their societies in diplomatic circles. The 2013 military coup in Egypt exemplifies the obstacles to confronting international support for resurgent authoritarianism in the Arab region. While testifying before the Senate earlier that year, Kerry affirmed that U.S. interests ultimately lay with the military, irrespective of the nascent democratic transition. Referring to the billions of dollars in annual aid that the U.S. had given to Egypt’s military since 1979, Kerry called it “the best investment America has made for years in that region.”


Dr. Abdullah Al-Arian is an associate professor of History at Georgetown University in Qatar. During the fall semester, he will be teaching Islamic Movements and History of the Arab World in the Twentieth Century at CCAS.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2019 CCAS Newsmagazine.