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Britain's Brotherhood inquiry: Another blow to democracy?

May 5, 2014 at 4:35 pm

A week after over 500 anti-coup protesters were sentenced to death by Field Marshall Abdul Fattah Al Sisi’s regime in Egypt, the British Prime Minister David Cameron has launched an inquiry. But, it’s not the inquiry one might expect, an inquiry into human rights abuses in Egypt by the military regime; it is in fact an inquiry into the Muslim Brotherhood’s activities in the UK.

Since the coup last July, the military regime in Egypt has pursued a repressive policy against the Muslim Brotherhood. Although the Brotherhood won five elections and became the first democratically elected civilian government of Egypt, they were ousted from power by a military coup after just a year. The military regime, keen to hold on to their power, have set out to dismantle the Muslim Brotherhood and remove them from the public sphere in Egypt. Over 1,000 people have been killed since the coup, thousands have been arrested and imprisoned. Many of their members and supporters were among the 529 Egyptians who were sentenced to death last week. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood have been now been outlawed and designated a terrorist organisation, facing persecution worse than that which they faced during Hosni Mubarak’s presidency.

And it’s not just in Egypt that the Brotherhood are facing persecution; autocratic regimes across the Middle East have lent their support to Al Sisi and his military regime. Two key players in the MENA region, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have taken steps to ban the Brotherhood in their countries and designate the group a terrorist organisation. When the Arab Spring led to the overthrow of some old autocratic regimes in the Middle East, others who were still in power became increasingly nervous. As the democratisation process appeared to go from strength to strength concerns about the new political order became ever apparent. Last year’s coup was then a convenient turn of events for those regimes that worried democracy could spread and take hold in other countries.

The Saudi and Emirati support for Al Sisi and opposition to the Brotherhood, did not come as a surprise, but the UK’s opposition to the advancement of democracy is rather perplexing. The UK has always been a supporter of democracy; the revolutions after the Arab Spring were widely hailed as bringing about a new era of democracy to the Middle East. Yet, after the coup last July Britain seemed to have a change of direction. The government refused to acknowledge that the ousting was a coup, government ministers would not use the term and officials said that they hoped a new government would be formed quickly. Foreign Secretary William Hague said that the UK would not take sides and whilst the UK did not support military interventions they would be dealing with the military regime as the government of Egypt.

Since the coup, the British-Egyptian relationship has continued to develop undisturbed by the human rights catastrophes taking place in the country. Yet despite this there have been a number of pro-democracy campaigns and protests in London, with Egyptians based in the UK’s capital calling for a return of the legitimate democratic government to Egypt. It seems now, that some months after the coup, the government have been handed ‘evidence’ relating to the Muslim Brotherhood’s activities in London.

A spokesperson for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said “The review will assess the MB’s impact on and influence over UK national interests, at home and abroad; its wider influence on UK society, culture and educational institutions; and key allies’ approaches and policies…Given the importance of the Middle East to British interests, the Prime Minister believes that the Government needs a thorough understanding of the organisation and its impact – both on our national security and on our interest in stability and prosperity in the Middle East.”

The Gulf’s association of the Brotherhood with terrorism seems to be catching. Although the British government has not accused the group of terrorism the announcement of the inquiry has been based around “alleged links with extremism”, citing the attacks on tourists in the Sinai. It should be noted though that those very attacks were carried out by a Salafist organisation active in the Sinai, Ansar Bait al Maqdis, who took responsibility for the attack. The Muslim Brotherhood in fact condemned the attack, describing it as cowardly and offering their condolences to victims’ families, hardly the actions of a group responsible for “alleged links with extremism.”

A slightly more surprising element of the inquiry are the individuals who have been chosen to lead it. The Foreign Office confirmed that the inquiry would be led by the UK’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Sir John Jenkins, but did not explain how or why that decision was reached. The ambassador to Saudi Arabia is an interesting choice, given that Saudi was the country first in line to support Al Sisi and his new regime and the first to designate the group a terrorist entity outside of Egypt. The Saudi – Britain relationship has always been close, but it has been no secret that the two countries have been getting much closer. As Louisa Loveluck pointed out in the Daily Telegraph “Last month, BAE systems, the British defence firm, finalised a deal on the price of 72 Eurofighter Typhoon jets it is selling to Saudi Arabia.” It seems inevitable that the British inquiry will be taking their cues from their colleagues in Saudi – how independent an inquiry it can be when Saudi have already made up their minds seems not to be a real question.

It’s not just Sir John Jenkins who seems to be anomalous, another key figure expected to play a role in the inquiry is Sir John Sawers. Sir John Sawers the current head of MI6 was an ambassador to Egypt between 2001 and 2003, during the era of Tony Blair’s close relationship with Hosni Mubarak. The former ambassador had close links to the Mubarak regime and was a foreign policy adviser to Tony Blair. Tony Blair has yet to give his thoughts on the inquiry, yet it is undoubtable that he will hold back. Tony Blair has always had close ties with autocratic regimes; the Sisi regime is no different and he has already waded into Egyptian affairs putting his weight firmly behind the coup regime. His lack of support for democracy and the parties that are democratically elected in the Middle East is well documented. Hence his support for the anti- Muslim Brotherhood campaign is inevitable. What influence, if any, Tony Blair will have on the inquiry is as yet unknown.

Although this is the first inquiry into the MB in the UK, it has clearly not emerged out of nowhere. Britain’s burgeoning relationship with the Gulf has had an obvious influence on this and it is likely that some of Cameron’s cabinet would fully support a ban of the MB. With support for Al Sisi coming from a number of disparate elements (from the Gulf through to Israel) it is unsurprising that those countries friends’ in the Cabinet would push the Sisi agenda. This inquiry seems, therefore, to be part of the wider Al Sisi strategy to dismantle the MB, not just in Egypt but wherever they might be. Although sources have said it is “possible but unlikely” that the Brotherhood will be banned in the UK, the timing of the announcement does indeed suggest that there has been some pressure on the UK from outside sources.

A number of commentators and Middle East watchers have noted that the inquiry is a worrying sign that David Cameron is succumbing to pressure from his colleagues and confidants in the region. Oliver McTernan, co-founder and director of Forward Thinking, said “I think it is unfortunate that the Prime Minster seems to have conceded to pressure from outside to launch such an inquiry. I have no doubt if it is a fair and objective inquiry it will once and for all dispel the misperceptions and prejudices that have prevented successive governments from engaging with members of the Muslim Brotherhood as responsible citizens and residents of our country.”

With David Cameron pushing for the inquiry to be completed by the summer, there will undoubtedly be further pressure on those leading it to come to their conclusions as quickly possible. What those conclusions will be are hard to foresee. It is hoped that the inquiry will be an independent inquiry and will tackle the issues fairly, without undue influence from outside sources. But the nature of the inquiry itself is indeed a concern. Britain has always been a beacon of democracy, support for democratisation in the Middle East seemed to be an inevitable part of that process. In turning their attention to the Muslim Brotherhood, the British government are putting their weight firmly behind the undemocratic coup regime of Al Sisi and his generals and ignoring the democratic will of the Egyptian people that brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power in the first place. Were they still a party of government there would not be an inquiry into their activities, yet the coup has rearranged the chess board and left Britain unsure of its own commitment to democracy.