Love them or loathe them, the Muslim Brotherhood is by far the most influential civil society movement in the Middle East. You can disagree with their policies, contemporary positions or long-term visions, but to be serious, you have to recognise their “greatness”. By “great,” I don’t mean wonderful or beautiful or even good. I mean historic.
This is a movement which was formed in the crucial cauldrons of history for the entire region – the ending of Western colonialism and the embers of Ottoman power. This was a movement whose members would go on to set up schools and charities, but also – would blow up places. Those that did were disowned by some and embraced by others. The Brotherhood probably has millions of members and thousands of local, regional and national power centres. It is a complicated living beast.
Both the Westeners and the Ottomans were, in their own way, like the Brotherhood, great and terrible. “The Brotherhood,” if it is even one unitary movement, is certainly a movement that has been massacred and elected, murdered and exalted, helped millions through charity or repressed millions through malice – depending on your point of view. Its international co-operative abilities are often over-stated, its aptitude towards violence is complicated, and its proficiencies and deficiencies are better dealt with by historians than journalists.
We should be under no pretences about the shrinking, or entirely shrivelled, role that Great Britain now plays in the world. Even if Britain is no longer great, the Brotherhood certainly is. It is this shrivelling sense of greatness that has played a crucial role in making one of the more important and under-appreciated shifts in foreign policy of the last decade; a response from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office to the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Select Committee this week, announcing that the British government should re-engage with the Brotherhood.
Following an investigation into whether “the Muslim Brotherhood” (if that is even a thing) was linked to terrorism, launched by the last British government but instigated entirely by puppetmasters in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, there was outcry in the Whitehall foreign policy establishment.
MI6 begrudgingly went along with it. MI5, responsible for domestic security, recognised that some of the most effective forces for stemming jihadi activity in Britain were in some way Brotherhood-related, and objected. They were then over-ruled. The parliamentary forces of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, led by the foreign policy realist Crispin Blunt, decided to investigate. They concluded that former British Prime Minister David Cameron had been a fool to investigate the Brotherhood. Still, he leads a committee of MPs who are relatively castrated of power. By complete surprise, as of last week, according to an official response from the diplomatic corps, the Foreign Office agreed all along. There is coming, as this official report details, a rapprochement with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Disparate and unnamed and, of course, quite possibly unreliable sources in Whitehall tell me that this shift in opinion is for one reason alone. Not one reason, in fact, but one person; President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. They believe that the days of the anti-Brotherhood new dictator of Egypt are numbered, and that the obvious replacement – the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, should be nurtured. The pro-Brotherhood diplomats of the Foreign Office have told the idealistic neoconservatives of the previous administration to get lost, and instead engage in good old fashioned British realism. The Brotherhood might not be ideal, but realistically, we have to do business with them.
Morality and ethics
Perhaps they have looked at the cards in Egypt itself, as of today, in which a dictator at least as bad as Hosni Mubarak has taken power. They recognise that his over-promises of economic boon are fatuous. The obvious question then is who to bet on next, if not Al-Sisi, and the obvious answer is the Muslim Brotherhood.
Dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood is not a question that does not revolve around morality and ethics; this is after all an organisation that bases itself on its ethics and morality. The question, for a British diplomat, is whether we have a need to engage or judge that morality, or whether we should just get on and deal with the world as it is, not how we want it to be.
When I first started writing this article, I was told that Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, should be credited with this turnaround in strategy towards the Middle East. It now becomes increasingly clear that Boris or “Bojo”, may have been barely aware. This turnaround, instead, is brought about by that most wonderfully conservative of phenomenon – the British deep state. Whichever mandarins in the Foreign Office pulled strings to make this decision deserve credit. It is a new and more optimistic chapter in Britain’s relations with the region, and a pragmatic stance. You don’t have to like the Brotherhood to appreciate that.