Cameron and the Muslim Brothers
Sudden UK inquiry smacks of pandering to Saudi Arabia
Since the September 11 attacks on the US in 2001, Britain, like other western governments, has from time to time banned Islamist movements that incite violence or sponsor terrorism. The announcement by David Cameron that his government is conducting an inquiry into the Muslim Brotherhood is highly unusual – and has raised suspicions over the prime minister’s motives.
The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928, is the most important pan-Islamic political organisation in the world. It has millions of followers in the Middle East and beyond. In the past three years, of course, its branch in Egypt has occupied centre stage. After the fall of the Mubarak regime, the Brotherhood enjoyed a brief stint in power marked by chaos and incompetence. In 2012 the military overthrew the government and the movement is now being hounded. Last week an Egyptian court sentenced 529 of its members to death.
Given the widespread disquiet in the west at those sentences, Mr Cameron’s announcement of an investigation into the Brotherhood looks somewhat ill-timed. It also has triggered unease in Whitehall. The prime minister’s office said Sir John Jenkins, the British ambassador to Riyadh, will head the inquiry into the “group’s philosophy and values and alleged connections with extremism and violence”. Yet Foreign Office officials have expressed concern privately that this cuts against its efforts to engage with the organisation inside and outside Britain.
There are good reasons why the UK security services might want to take a hard look at the Brotherhood. The more the movement is crushed in Egypt, the more likely its members may lash out violently inside that country and beyond. With political Islam again under pressure in the Middle East, the UK must beware of allowing London to become a haven for radical Islamists as it did in the 1990s.
Yet the very public announcement of this inquiry – and in particular the fact that the ambassador to Riyadh is in charge – is bound to fuel suspicions that the UK is acting under pressure from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. For the rulers in Riyadh, the Brotherhood represents their most potent rival for influence across the region. Diplomatic and commercial relations between Saudi Arabia and the UK have been strained by Britain’s failure to act in Syria and by its engagement with Iran. This inquiry therefore smacks of gesture politics.
The problem is that it also carries risks. Several peaceful community organisations in the UK are sympathetic to the Brotherhood and have been for decades. The announcement that the government is conducting an investigation may gratuitously alienate those groups.
Western powers should also beware of threatening to crack down on what is an amorphous and generally peaceable movement. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have outlawed the Brotherhood. If the west follows, this will fuel the argument of jihadists that the only way to forge an Islamic state is by the bullet not the ballot box.
Above all, the UK must avoid giving the impression that it will pander to the Saudis for commercial reasons. In 2006 Tony Blair’s government created controversy by calling off a Serious Fraud Office investigation into allegations that BAE, Britain’s biggest arms company, had paid massive bribes to Saudi princes to win lucrative contracts. Such moves are diplomatically demeaning.
The announcement on the Muslim Brotherhood is therefore misjudged. If there are individuals on its fringes who pose a security threat to the UK, they should be prosecuted or proscribed under existing terror laws. Mr Cameron needs to set limits to how far he will travel in pursuit of British commercial interests.