Britain’s Muslim Brotherhood review still poses puzzling questions

Time’s up for submissions to the British government’s controversial review of the Muslim Brotherhood – though it is just a coincidence that the May 30 deadline comes just as Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi is confirmed as Egypt’s next president. Anyone who wanted to could send evidence (maximum 3,000 words) to the cabinet’s national security secretariat in Whitehall, which is coordinating the work being done by Sir John Jenkins, the UK ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

The terms of reference include “the philosophy, activities, impact and influence on UK national interests, at home and abroad, of the Muslim Brotherhood and of government policy towards the organisation.”

No other countries are mentioned but critics insist the “review” (inside suspicious inverted commas) is directly linked to events in Egypt, where Sisi’s election victory follows the army’s removal of the Brotherhood’s democratically-elected (but deeply unpopular) Mohamed Morsi in July 2013 – and the bloodshed and repression that followed. In an open letter published in the Guardian this week they warned of a “dangerous precedent” and fretted that it might “represent a risk to civil liberties and further erode human rights standards”.

Concerns persist that the review is the result of pressure from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Arab oil monarchies which persecute Islamists and are hugely important markets and clients for the UK, and have been instrumental in backing and bankrolling Sisi’s crackdown in Egypt. The authorities in Cairo have of course been banging the drum as well.

Jenkins was chosen for the job because he is the Foreign Office’s most experienced and respected Arabist. But it is unfortunate that he is also our man in Riyadh, since that could be seen as implying some wish to reflect or appease Saudi views. It would be alarming if that were so since the Saudis, like the Egyptians, have declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization (along with al-Qaida and other jihadis who loathe the MB’s commitment to democracy and non-violence). Announcing the exercise does look like a misjudged attempt to score brownie points: internal reviews are held across Whitehall all the time and never made public.

But Gulf and Egyptian pressure is only part of the story. The Brotherhood review is also about the British government catching up with the changes of the Arab spring, which have seen Islamists rise and, with the exception of Tunisia, fall. It also reflects tensions between the Foreign Office and the Home Office, whose interests in the subject are as different as Benghazi and Birmingham. Thus the discreet but leading role in the review being played by Charles Farr, the former MI6 officer who heads the Home Office’s Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism.

It was Egypt that dominated discussion at a public meeting organized by the Cordoba Foundation in London this week, with speaker after speaker querying why the British government was scrutinizing an organisation which sees itself as victim and not perpetrator, with 1,000 supporters dead and many thousands more in prison to prove the point.

The larger suspicion is that the UK review illustrates – like Algeria in 1991 and Palestine (Hamas) in 2006 – western intolerance for seeing Islamists take power through the ballot box. The evidence, however, is that the US, Britain and Europe – unlike the Saudis and Emiratis – would have far preferred to see Morsi serve out his term and by judged (probably harshly) by Egyptian voters, not by Sisi and the generals. If that had happened, the outcome for Egypt – and the wider Arab world – might have been a lot brighter.

Sir Ken Macdonald, the former director of public prosecutions, who is advising the Brotherhood, called the creation of the review body “a mystery.” If its purpose was, as the critics charge, to please Arab autocrats, it conclusions look unlikely to help. It might point to ambiguous statements by Brotherhood leaders or to specific instances of violence in Egypt– albeit in a highly polarized and poisonous context, or note expressions of sectarian intolerance towards Christians. Supporters do fear that any criticism or question marks could fuel prejudice. But drastic action – such as being proscribed – is almost impossible to imagine.

Jenkins is still busy collecting evidence, including from the Brotherhood itself, across the Arab world as well as in Britain. He is due to report back to the prime minister by the time of parliament’s summer recess. What happens next will be keenly awaited far beyond Downing Street.

Guardian, 30 May 2014