The Effects of Proscription on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt

Ioana Emy Matesan

Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash.


From its establishment in 1928 until the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood developed from a small religious study group into the most influential Islamist movement in the world. After coming to political power in 2012 during Egypt’s brief democratic transition, the group was ousted in a military coup in 2013, and designated as a terrorist organization. Ten years after the military coup in Egypt, the repression undertaken in the name of counterterrorism has had a devastating effect on both the Islamist movement and political freedoms in the country.

Terrorist lists and the rise of proscription regimes

One of the tools that states use in the fight against terrorism is proscription, or the official designation of actors as terrorist organizations. Such a designation carries significant legal implications, and prohibits these groups from operating legally, raising funds, or being openly included in diplomatic initiatives. While states often characterize their internal enemies as terrorists, since 9/11 the adoption of proscription has proliferated, especially after the 2001 U.N. Resolution 1373 that required all states to criminalize terrorist acts and the financing of terrorism. There is a general consensus that terrorism involves acts of violence against civilians for political purposes, but there is no universally accepted definition of terrorism. This has in effect enabled states to politicize proscription and blacklist at their own discretion. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has recognized that “the measures adopted by States to counter terrorism have themselves often posed serious challenges to human rights and the rule of law.”

In 1992, the country amended its Penal Code and formally labeled terrorism a crime, adopting a broad definition that includes ‘the use of force, violence, threats or incitement inside of Egypt or outside of it with the purpose of disturbing the public order, putting the security and interests of society at threat, harming individuals…[or] violating national unity, social peace, and national security.’

Egypt has a long history of using security as a rationale to adopt measures that undermine the rule of law and human rights. The 1958 emergency law grants security forces extended powers, restricts demonstrations and rallies, permits indefinite detention without trial by military courts, and limits freedom of speech. Egypt has been under a state of almost continuous emergency since the assassination of President Sadat in 1981. In 1992, the country amended its Penal Code and formally labeled terrorism a crime, adopting a broad definition that includes “the use of force, violence, threats or incitement inside of Egypt or outside of it with the purpose of disturbing the public order, putting the security and interests of society at threat, harming individuals…[or] violating national unity, social peace, and national security.” 

After a brief and contentious democratic interlude following the Arab Spring, Egypt is back on a path of increasing repression in the name of security. In November 2013, interim president Adly Mansour issued a new law regarding public assembly that effectively banned all forms of peaceful protests. In August 2015, president al-Sisi enacted a new counterterrorism law that empowered authorities to impose the death penalty for crimes that fall under the umbrella of terrorism. The law also gave prosecutors greater power to detain suspects without judicial review and to surveil terrorist suspects without a court order. Under the new framework, it has become illegal to publish news about terrorism that contradicts the official statements of the Defense Ministry. 

Designating the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is one of the oldest and most influential Islamist movements in the world. The group was founded almost 100 years ago as a social and religious movement. Over the course of the 20th century it developed an intricate network of social services, grew to dominate civil society in Egypt, and became the most significant source of political opposition in the country. When the 2011 Arab Spring uprising ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the brief democratic transition that unfolded catapulted the Brotherhood to the forefront of Egyptian politics. After its candidates won the presidency and a significant number of seats in parliament, the Brotherhood seemed well positioned to influence the trajectory of the country. This prominence, however, was short-lived. By June 2013, public disillusionment with the state of the economy and the lack of political progress led to widespread popular mobilization against the Brotherhood. The military stepped in and ousted the movement from power. When Brotherhood supporters staged peaceful sit-ins to denounce the coup, security forces used excessive force to disperse them. 

“Protesters chant slogans against the Muslim Brotherhood, whose political wing launched Mohamed Morsi to the presidency, November 30, 2012.” by Y. Weeks/Voice of America.

In response to the repression, some Brotherhood members called for violence against the regime. Such a reaction is common among social movements on all sides of the ideological spectrum, and is not unique either to the Brotherhood or to Islamist movements. Scholars have shown that state violence can radicalize both individuals and movements by eliciting a sense of victimization and desire for revenge, and pushing groups underground. In the case of the Egyptian Brotherhood, the call for armed resistance against security forces was not unanimous. The highest-ranking leaders of the movement insisted on showing restraint and patience. Nonetheless, in December 2013, the Brotherhood was designated a terrorist organization. 

The effects of proscription on the Muslim Brotherhood

The terrorist designation enabled the regime to strike the Brotherhood with an iron fist, weakening the organization to the point of incapacitation. The regime arrested scores of members and leaders, confiscated the movement’s assets, and closed down affiliated social welfare associations. This repression further radicalized some of its members, and spurred internal debates over whether there can be a religious justification for armed resistance against the regime. In the 1950s and 1960s, divisions over the question of violence severely fragmented the Muslim Brotherhood, but the organization eventually converged on a model of non-violent Islamist activism. After 2013, divergent views on the justification for armed resistance once again fragmented the movement. 

With much of the senior leadership either in prison or in exile, a new echelon of leaders emerged and took charge of daily operations in Egypt. As part of an organizational rebuilding, they formed two structures for confronting the regime: one focused on peaceful demonstrations, and one focused on “security operations.” At first, the scope of these security operations was limited to setting fire to electric units or police cars, under the mantra of “by any means other than blood.” This shows an acute awareness of the legal definition of terrorism as the killing of civilians. Over time, however, many voices within the movement adopted a more revolutionary tone. Tensions between the new leaders and the historical leaders of the movement escalated to the point of an official split in the organization, and to what some consider a legitimation crisis. From an organizational standpoint, proscription severely damaged the Brotherhood, both directly and indirectly. 

Proscribing the Muslim Brotherhood in the United States would be misguided, and would only serve to legitimize Egypt’s repressive counterterrorism measures.

Aside from these internal considerations, proscription also exacerbated the social isolation and demonization of the movement inside Egypt. For instance, according to the Arab Barometer, trust in the Muslim Brotherhood declined from 44% in 2011 to 17% in 2019. This is particularly striking when we consider that in 2019, trust in the army was at 84%. Yet it would be misguided to attribute all the mistrust in the Brotherhood to proscription. Trust in the Brotherhood had already dropped to 21% during the final months of President Morsi’s rule in 2013. From 2013 to 2016 there was also a four-fold increase in the public perception of security. This suggests that much of the public disillusionment with the Islamist group is due to its mismanagement of the democratic transition and political developments after it came to power.

Proscription, counterterrorism and repression

Some critics of the Muslim Brotherhood may consider the devastating effects of proscription on the organization as a positive development. But the proscription of the Brotherhood cannot be considered in isolation of the larger effects of the counterterrorism legislation on Egyptian society at large. The use of the terrorist designation and the securitization of dissent have had a devastating effect on civil society and political freedoms in Egypt. According to Human Rights Watch, many civil society leaders engaging in peaceful activism continue to face arbitrary travel bans, asset freezes, and criminal investigations. The public’s perception of their ability to join civil associations or participate in peaceful protests has also declined (it dropped from 64% in 2013 to 28% in 2016). In spite of the worsening human rights situation in the country, Egypt continues to be a top recipient of U.S. military aid. Lawmakers and civil society groups have urged the State Department to make aid conditional on human rights reforms, albeit with limited success. Moreover, since 2015, Republican members of Congress have repeatedly introduced a bill that would label the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group. While there is considerable opposition to such a designation, many conservative voices paint the Brotherhood as a global threat, and the American public remains largely uninformed about the organization. Proscribing the Muslim Brotherhood in the United States would be misguided, and would only serve to legitimize Egypt’s repressive counterterrorism measures.♦

Ioana Emy Matesan is an Associate Professor of Government at Wesleyan University, and the author of The Violence Pendulum (Oxford University Press 2020). Her research on contentious politics, Islamist movements, and conflict studies has been published in a variety of academic journals.

Recommended Citation

Matesan, Ioana Emy. “The Effects of Proscription on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.” Canopy Forum, March 25, 2023.