The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Brits to talk to Brotherhood

This baited breath tone of this article by Martin Bright in the New Statesman is pretty stupid:

The British government has a terrible dilemma. Should it refuse to deal with radical Islamic movements altogether, and so risk alienating large parts of the Muslim world, or should it make overtures towards the leaders of these movements and face down accusations that it is appeasing Islamofascists?

The New Statesman can reveal that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has opted for the latter course, and has decided on a policy of engagement with what it calls "political Islam". To this end, it proposes to develop "working-level contacts" in Egypt with one of the Middle East's most militant groups, the Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned in many countries in the region and considered a terrorist organisation by the United States.

A leaked memo to the Middle East minister Kim Howells, dated 17 January and obtained by this magazine, shows that the government is preparing to open lines of communication with the Brotherhood, seen by many as the chief inspiration behind much modern Islamic extremism. The memo from the FCO's Arab/Israel and North Africa Group recommends increasing "the frequency of working-level contacts with Muslim Brotherhood parliamentarians (who do not advocate violence), particularly those who are members of parliamentary committees".

In a week when the government has argued again for a statutory offence of "glorifying terrorism" it may seem contradictory for it to pursue links with a group that openly supports the violent struggle of Hamas in Israel. The leaked document recognises how sensitive this is likely to be, especially with the Egyptian government of Hosni Mubarak: "The presentation of any change in the way we deal with the Muslim Brotherhood will have to be carefully handled, in order to safeguard our bilateral relations with Egypt. The Egyptian government perceive the Muslim Brotherhood to be the political face of a terrorist organisation."
The article, by the way, is called "Talking to terrorists."

Alarmist tones aside, the article -- if what it claims is true -- is actually useful in that it shows a) a change in British policy and b) the internal debate taking place in the Foreign Office:

The NS understands that the latest leaks of Foreign Office documents reflect growing discomfort among officials with the government's new direction. Although the memo urging engagement with Islamists is said to have the backing of "Egypt" (meaning the British embassy there), a further leak shows that Sir Derek Plumbly, the British ambassador to Egypt and one of this country's most senior diplomats, is far from convinced. Plumbly, a former head of the Foreign Office's Middle East and North Africa desk wrote to John Sawers, the political director at the FCO, about his concerns on 23 June last year.

Pressing for legalisation of the Brotherhood would be likely to "scare the horses" in Egypt, Plumbly wrote. He poured scorn on the idea that engagement by the British government would be likely to affect the future direction of the movement: "I suspect that there will be relatively few contexts in which we are able significantly to influence the Islamists' agenda."

Plumbly's letter includes a stark warning: "I also detect a tendency for us to be drawn towards engagement for its own sake; to confuse 'engaging with the Islamic world' with 'engaging with Islamism'; and to play down the very real downsides for us in terms of the Islamists' likely foreign and social policies, should they actually achieve power in countries such as Egypt."
That last point is almost certainly true. The rise of Islamist parties means less pliable governments in the Arab world -- ones that might not so easily hand over big oil, arms or construction contracts, follow Western policies on the international and regional levels, or collaborate in covert rendition and torture programs. And of course they might be just as despotic as the regimes they replace -- Iran and Sudan sure aren't a great example of what happens when Islamists are in power. But this is why engaging Islamists and persuading them to compete in a democratic system (and ensuring these systems remain democratic) is a better solution than ignoring them.

The full leaked documents can be found here. They also state that:

The US are reviewing their position on contacts with the MB, having previously refused any contact. Their line is likely to continue to be that they will operate within Egyptian law.
Seems in keeping with what journalists know is taking place, although I believe the US did have informal contacts with the MB in the early 1990s.

The documents are really worth reading if you're interested in this issue, particularly the first and third one. I am sure the Egyptian press is going to have a field day with this. It seems like someone in the Foreign Office is pretty intent on sabotaging the move to talk to Islamists.