Part I: The United States and The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood: Understanding a Chaotic History

Part I: The United States and The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood: Understanding a Chaotic History

The following is the first of a two-part series.

For many years, the relationship between the United States and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) has been under fire, plagued by myth and delusion. The United States and the Muslim Brotherhood have faced conflicting accusations of colluding in order to maintain U.S. interests in the Middle East or, conversely, of fiercely sparring over the antagonistic values of liberal democracy versus theocracy. A careful and rigorous analysis of historical archives and interviews with some of the most important representatives of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East shed a more nuanced and factual light on the country’s past and current relationship with the Brotherhood. The United States has never supported the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology; however, it has always tried to deal with it when international circumstances demanded, trying to find a way to make the Muslim Brothers more “responsible” and encouraging them to act according to U.S. national interest. 

Irreconcilable ideological differences have never impeded efforts to cooperate, since both parties have refrained from adopting hardline objectives and from underestimating power relationships. Even though the Muslim Brotherhood has, for decades, continuously fanned the flames of repulsion on doctrinal grounds, the United States has never shied away from establishing a partnership with it whenever the Brotherhood appeared to wield influence in Egyptian decision-making circles. In these specific circumstances, the Brotherhood was deemed a responsible partner that could rein in its radical nature. As long as the Brotherhood’s agenda did not conflict with the dominant U.S. approach of the time, the United States was happy to collaborate. When their agendas clashed, though, the United States reverted to portraying the Brotherhood as dogmatic and uncompromising hard-liners. In fact, a continuous shift between a principled attitude and a politically-motivated approach has defined the relationship between the two parties over the last century.

A Chaotic Relationship of Mutual Mistrust and Shared Interests

Declassified U.S. State Department archival documents prior to 1979 reveal a U.S. relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood defined by chaos and self-interest. The U.S. diplomats who served in Egypt appear to have long ignored the Brotherhood. Up until the mid-1940s, no reports, diplomatic correspondence, or other documents sent out by the U.S. embassy in Cairo made any mention of the Muslim Brotherhood. “The fanatical Moslem Society: Ikhwan El-Moslimin” was first referenced in a diplomatic note U.S. diplomats based in Cairo sent on April 29, 1944.

In fact, a few days prior to the note, the Brotherhood had addressed a letter in Arabic to the U.S ambassador to Egypt, asking not only for a clarification of the U.S. position regarding the Palestinian issue and support to Arabs, but also requesting that Washington pressure its British and French allies, whom the group accused of oppression and colonization of Muslim populations [1]. In the April 29 note , U.S. diplomats warned against the movement whose creation they wrongly dated back to 1938 (Ikhwan was actually created ten years prior), showing how little they knew about the group. They contended that the Brotherhood warranted caution due to its “adherence to fanatical tenets,” promotion of “Koranic law” to rule Egypt, and belief that “anything not Muslim must be hated.”

Thereafter, the relationship between the two parties was characterized as a deliberate clash of world views that continuously fueled animosity between the United States and the Islamist movement. Yet, concurrently, the relationship has also promoted mutual interests and the combined search for political gains, as evident whenever the two parties have shared a common enemy or were forced to deal with one another. In these instances, irreconcilable ideological differences always came second to pragmatism.

U.S. Use of Muslim Brotherhood Influence During the Cold War 

A few years later, as the Cold War ushered in a new global geopolitical frame of reference, the U.S. outlook on the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology became more favorable. The U.S diplomatic corps in Cairo created links with the leaders of the movement, and these contacts only intensified after the Free Officers’ coup d’état in the summer of 1952. In a note dated December 23, 1952, the Counselor of the Embassy, Robert McClintock, gave an account of his conversations with some of the highest ranking leaders of the Brotherhood (Hassan al-Hudaybi, a judge who succeeded Hassan al-Banna, the movement’s founder, as General Guide; Mahmoud Makhlouf; and Said Ramadan, among others), proof of the ties that had been established. McClintock related how these leaders, who supported the toppling of the monarchy, understood communism and envisioned change for Egypt. He went so far as to say that he was confident that these hard-liners could offset the growing influence of communism in Egypt, an influence that grew stronger under Gamal Abdel Nasser, the newly established Egyptian strongman who had deposed Mohamed Naguib, himself suspected of being too close the Brotherhood. The U.S. diplomatic corps kept building ties with the Brotherhood up to the point when the movement was forced underground in 1950.

These elements support the contention that for many years the U.S relationship with the Egyptian Brotherhood was in fact motivated by the group’s influence and capacity to mobilize its members in order to help the United States out of a difficult situation. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood opposed Nasser’s growing influence and helped contain the Soviet influence in the Arab world. In this context, they appeared as both a counterweight and a potential ally.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. Chargé d’Affaires in Cairo met openly and regularly with the leaders of the Brotherhood to discuss the movement’s position, as the initial cooperation it had established with the military regime gradually deteriorated into a fierce rivalry. The influence of the radical theorist Sayyid Qutb—whose trial and execution were also documented in many embassy reports—along with the ban of the Brotherhood in 1954 catalyzed the break in relations with the United States. From 1966 to 1967, no diplomatic note or cable originating from the U.S. embassy in Egypt made any elaborated mention of the Brotherhood. In all likelihood, the links between the U.S. diplomatic corps and the Muslim Brotherhood were deemed inappropriate now that the movement had gone underground. This situation lingered even when Anwar al-Sadat, a president better disposed towards the group, took office. Indeed, no significant trace of the former relationships that had been built between the United States and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood could be found in the archives after the mid-1960s.

The Mubarak years saw the U.S. try to establish some personal contacts with some members of the Muslim Brotherhood. As stated by some leading diplomats such as Frank Wisner, the U.S. Ambassador in Cairo from 1986 to 1991, it was sometimes possible to meet with the Brotherhood’s leaders [2]. Yet, the United States was always under constant pressure from the Egyptian government to be very cautious about being in touch with a movement that was not officially recognized at that time. The 1990s thus revealed some contact between the United States and the Brotherhood, but no deep interaction.

For many years after, it seemed the United States had lost contact with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. However, with the end of the Cold War and the rise of global jihadist movements in the aftermath of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the United States took a renewed interest in the Brotherhood as a possible partner. It remains to be seen if this partnership will emerge or if, conversely, the movement will instead encourage violent religious extremism across the Islamic world.

[1] In this note, precision is made that no one at the embassy spoke Arabic. An Arabic speaker was recruited for the first time by the embassy afterwards.

[2] I interviewed Frank Wisner on April 16th, 2019 in New York.


Mohamed-Ali Adraoui is a Research-Professor and Marie Sklodowska Curie Fellow at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He is currently working on a book on the history of U.S. foreign policy towards the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, to be submitted shortly to Oxford University Press.