Cameron’s review of the Muslim Brotherhood will end in farce
The likelihood is that nobody will be entirely happy and British policy will be no clearer on the issue than it is today
Why does Britain back the Muslim Brotherhood? This is a question I have been asked for years. The questioners argue that the Ikhwan, or Brotherhood’s leaders have been able to operate freely in Britain, use its media, abuse its academic institutions and drive through the movement’s ambitious program for power all with the connivance of British politicians. It is an instrument, many believe, of British policy in the Middle East, used to undermine existing regimes and keep the region weak and divided.
Compelling arguments could be made to challenge such theories. After all, Britain has had close relations with every anti-Brotherhood force in the region, not least the former Mubarak regime in Egypt. Some see Britain as having been close to the Islamist Mursi regime but its silence about what has happened since July indicates a comfort level with the Ikhwan’s removal.
Britain has tried to have it both ways, working with the existing regimes of all hues, whilst maintaining relations with the paramount opposition movement across the region. This high-wire balancing act has just got tougher.
Monitoring the Brotherhood
Given that the Muslim Brotherhood has been around for over 80 years, Britain has a pretty decent understanding of this movement. Yet, on March 31, the Times newspaper revealed that the British Prime Minister David Cameron had “commissioned an internal government review into the philosophy and activities of the Muslim Brotherhood and the government's policy towards the organization."
The Foreign Office, the intelligence agencies and others would all contribute to this endeavour. The British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Sir John Jenkins, has been asked to author the review. The report is due by the end of July with the conclusions but the report will not be made public.
This fuels the belief that the review is for external consumption more than internal policy making. The timing is not seen as accidental. Two of Britain's key Middle East partners have declared that the Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist organization in the last few months - first Egypt and then Saudi Arabia.Chris Doyle
The knee-jerk assumption is that this is the first step to restricting Brotherhood activities in Britain. The Ikhwan does have an office in London along with various affiliated organizations yet is there evidence that those Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Britain are involved in violent campaigns?
The British government is nervous about accusations of becoming the European hub for the movement, sensitive to the criticism that Islamist leaders used Britain as a refugee throughout the 1990s.
But mounting such a review raises more questions than answers. Why was this announced in public and why doesn’t the government carry it out not as an independent body whose findings could be ditched? Governments routinely assess policies across a whole range of issues without debating this in the public domain.
If the Brotherhood is a security threat, it does not require a public review for the security services to push for it to be banned. No such review occurred when Hamas and Hezbollah become proscribed organizations.
Choosing the current British ambassador to Saudi Arabia will do little to calm the conspiracy theorists. Why chose an ambassador in a state where the Muslim Brotherhood is outlawed and whose government is hell bent on its destruction?
Many will speculate that his role will be to sell the findings in Riyadh as much as anything else. If he does not slam the movement, how will Jenkins manage relations with his furious hosts?
This fuels the belief that the review is for external consumption more than internal policy making. The timing is not seen as accidental. Two of Britain's key Middle East partners have declared that the Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist organization in the last few months - first Egypt and then Saudi Arabia.
In addition, the UAE is staunchly opposed to the group, as is Israel. Financially it might make sense for Britain to position itself in an expanding anti-Brotherhood alliance that includes such powerful actors and trade partners.
A sensitive subject
There are downsides. Qatar and Turkey are clearly sympathetic. More importantly there are significant swathes of Arab and Muslim opinion including in Britain itself. Egypt's recent decision to pass a death sentence for 529 alleged Mursi supporters has barely merited a murmur of criticism from British politicians.
Any British action against the Ikhwan now could be seen as the government condoning this and other egregious abuse of human rights. Moreover, the inquiry is based on the attack on a tourist bus at Taba in Sinai in February that killed three people but there has been no evidence that the Muslim Brotherhood was involved.
But also the Egyptian Ikhwan is in tatters, leaderless and without any obvious strategy. It is hard to see it as one coherent movement. For sure, there will be offshoots that will pursue a violent agenda.
Are any of these based in Britain? There are many Brotherhood supporters who have never espoused violence and so there is a risk that any actions could drive them towards it not away from it.
What about Syria? The major component of the Syrian national coalition that Britain, along with others, has endorsed as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people, is the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. There has been no criticism of the Syrian branch yet it is part and parcel of the same movement.
It is also rightly or wrongly engaged in armed activities in Syria. If the government restricted Muslim Brotherhood activities, does it ignore the Syrian branch and recalibrate its entire Syria policy?
Cameron will regret this decision. The British government is now trapped. Those most interested in the report have their own fixed ideas as to what they want it to say. Brotherhood opponents want a report that backs their view of the Ikhwan, followed by proscribing the group as a terrorist outfit.
Anything less than that will irritate Riyadh and Cairo. Supporters will want their freedom to operate legitimately validated. The likelihood is that nobody will be entirely happy and British policy will be no clearer on the issue than it is today.
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.
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