Founded in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood is the biggest pan-Arab political and religious movement. A conservative, communitarian organisation made up of various regional affiliates that undertake social work as well as political activities, it is capable of mobilising significant support in populations across the region. Accordingly, it has long been seen as a threat by various governments in the Middle East and has undergone many periods of repression over the years. That changed after the Arab Spring, when Brotherhood-affiliated organisations were voted into power in various countries after dictators were toppled. Most notably, the group came to power in Egypt in 2012, before being ousted in a military coup last year.
Since Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's Brotherhood president, was deposed, the military-backed government has designated the group a terrorist organisation, jailing its leaders, staging mass arrests of its supporters, and blaming it for a number of attacks. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, two of Britain's closest diplomatic and commercial allies in the region, have also carried out similar actions against the group. Like Egypt, Saudi Arabia banned it altogether.
Repression is nothing new for a movement that has, for many years, had to operate underground. Many members of the Brotherhood in Egypt have sought refuge overseas, in London, Istanbul and Doha. The group – which has had a presence in the UK since 1995 – apparently maintains its headquarters in London.
Earlier this year, Downing Street announced: "The prime minister has commissioned an internal government review into the philosophy and activities of the Muslim Brotherhood and the government's policy towards the organisation."
It was widely thought that this inquiry was commissioned at least partly because of pressure from Britain's allies in the Gulf, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia. In addition to this, of course, any suggestion of terrorist activity is enough to trigger prompt action from the British government, which is keen to avoid a return to the situation of the 1990s, when London was seen as a haven for Islamists. But the decision to hold an inquiry was controversial; some analysts and government figures warned that designating a conservative but non-violent movement a terrorist organisation would alienate its supporters and backfire by pushing them towards violent extremism.
The inquiry, carried out by Sir John Jenkins, was completed at the end of July, but the publication has been delayed. Reports on why this might be differ. The Financial Times claimed in August that the government put off publication because its main conclusion – that the Muslim Brotherhood should not be classified as a terrorist organisation and banned – is at odds with the outlook of key allies such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
The newspaper quoted an unnamed Whitehall official as saying: "Sir John will say that the Brotherhood is not a terrorist organisation. The Saudis and Emiratis will then be very upset with us." It also quoted an anonymous Foreign Office official describing intense pressure from the royal family of Abu Dhabi.
Yet others have directly contradicted the suggestion that the report found no evidence at all of prohibited activity. This week, the Daily Telegraph reported that the inquiry, though stopping short of proposing a ban, found that some of the movement's activity amounts to complicity with armed groups and extremists in the Middle East and elsewhere. The newspaper quotes a Foreign Office official as saying: "We won't ban the Muslim Brotherhood. There are other things that can be done but not a ban." The Telegraph also alleged that parts of the report were too sensitive to publish.
One of the main areas investigated by Jenkins was Muslim Brotherhood charities in the UK that are being scrutinised by the Charity Commission. The Commission has opened inquiries into alleged suspicions over funding to overseas terrorist organisations by at least three British-based Muslim Brotherhood charities. The Telegraph report suggests that as well as potential action on these organisations, political activities such as media and propaganda branches could be more tightly regulated.
Downing Street has said in a statement that the report will be published at the end of the year; until this happens, it will be impossible to know which leaks are true and which are exaggerated. However, the government should tread carefully; even those who have no ideological sympathy with the Brotherhood should avoid being complicit in its repression. This is something that sections of the British government are well aware of. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has previously warned against proscribing the Brotherhood on the basis that restricting a non-violent group risks enforcing the argument of armed religious fighters: that victory will be attained by bullets, not the ballot box. If the group has upheld the laws of Britain, then any measures taken by the government should reflect that fact.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.