The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Plumbly's point

I'd like to highlight some of arguments made by Sir Derek Plumbly, the British ambassador in Cairo, in the letter to former ambassador to Cairo John Sawers that was revealed by the New Statesman as we reported yesterday. The letter is dated 23 June, 2005, or just after Condoleeza Rice delivered a lecture that was supposed to be a major policy speech on democratization in the region.

But my main purpose in writing concems the operational conclusions drawn from these meetings. If we get ourselves into a position where we are stating as a matter of principle the importance of "engaging political Islam" we will run into specific difficulties in particular countries, including this one. Seen from here we will do better to position ourselves country by country as required to advance our overall reform objectives. The general principles should be ones of universal application (democracy, freedom of expression, respect for human rights etc).

My second point is that it would not be sensible to instruct EU Heads of Mission across the Arab world during our Presidency to initiate discussion of contacts with Islamists. The fact of the discussion would in itself be a signal. Whether such a discussion was likely to be useful might vary from post to post. But we need to recognise the porosity of the 25. Once a paper or subject is launched among Heads of Mission, certainly in this post, it will be in the hands of our hosts within the hour (cf recent experience in relation to the ENP Action Plan). We will then be running to put out brush fires out with Aboul Gheit to the exclusion of real business. The collective response of my colleagues might well be that we should have no truck with the Brothers. But I would be labelled - as I am to a certain extent already - as agitating in the other direction. Discussion is more likely to be useful in informal fora, G8 Ambassadors here have recently compared notes on contacts with Islamists at our instigation. I attach the relevant paragraph from the record.

Underlying all of this - here at least - is a question about what the real possibilities for forward movement on political reform are at the moment. and how signalling greater readiness to talk to the Muslim Brothers would impact that. The Brothers are the regime's red line. Mubarak has it is true been dragged over other red lines. But this one is existential, not just for the leadership but for the class from which they are drawn and for the vision of society to which they subscribe. They can be encouraged to accommodation on it (see for example my record of my meeting with Governor Mahgoub in Alexandria over the weekend). But we need to judge the message very carefully. Pressing for legalisation of the Brothers as a political party, or dealing with them ourselves directly (as opposed to seeing their MPAs or sympathisers like Fahmy Howeidi, to whom I introduced Kim Howells), will panic the horses. In my judgement it would seriously impede our ability to influence them on other aspects of political reform - more transparent elections, access to the media, freedom of assembly for opposition candidates etc.

I am not starry eyed about the commitment of the regime here to political reform. The old guard - Safwat Sherif, Kamal al Shazli and their like - continue to try to cook things in a thoroughly unscrupulous way. Abuses are manifold, and will be repeated any number of times in the coming months. But the stated vision of the regime - democratic choice, freedom of expression, a stronger secular opposition - is respectable. They wrap themselves in the banner of "no religion in politics". Many oppositionists including in Kifaya take the same line. As the US Chargé here says that is not so very far from the basis of his constitution, and the Americans for the moment seem disinclined to challenge this particular red line. You will have seen from our reporting that Condoleezza Rice went out of her way during her visit here to deny the existence of US contacts with the Muslim Brothers - "we respect Egyptian law" - though she was very firm about transparent elections, freedom of assembly, human rights abuses etc.

I think real advances in political liberalization are possible in Egypt this autumn. We are much further forward than I expected at the beginning of the year. They key – even more important than the presidential elections – will be those for the People’s Assembly, in which independents including MBs and opposition figures may well do much better than in the past. I would not be surprised if that in turn led to a realignment of parties and the emergence of new ones, though not – I am pretty sure – an overtly Islamist one. The road that takes us there may well be bumpy, and will certainly include a good deal more pressure from the Muslim Brothers on the streets. If their activity is repressed aggressively we will need to respond: I very much agree with Frances that we should not confine our demarches on human rights to liberal or secular victims of abuse: we have been too silent here on this score in the recent past. But I am not keen actually to encourage the Brothers – as a chance remarks from Condoleeza Rice earlier in the year encouraged the first round of demonstrations by them.

In short I think we need to avoid restricting our freedom of manoeuvre by enunciating general principles about engagement with Islamists, and give ourselves room to handle the issue flexibly on a country by country basis. We will continue to look for opportunities to talk to Islamists here. But we will pick the context carefully and not put other interests at risk. If the issue is one of knowing more about bodies like the Muslim Brothers, there are other ways of doing so besides group engagement.
That was the state of the debate in mid-2005. The more recent letter, from the Arab/Israel and North Africa Group of the Foreign Office, seems to set the new policy of engaging "at the working level" with the MB, and encourage both EU countries and the US to do the same, but still urges caution. Yet, someone at the Foreign Office obviously wanted to derail that policy by releasing the documents to the press. It will be interesting to see what, if any, fallout there will be.