Secret documents show the Foreign Office is ready to risk international fury by opening a dialogue with Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.
By Martin BrightThe 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". 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."
As a religious party, the Brotherhood ("Ikhwan" in Arabic) is banned in Egypt, but its representatives, standing as independents, emerged as the chief opposition in elections last year, winning a fifth of the seats in parliament. It also has substantial grass-roots support across the Middle East, despite crackdowns in Syria and Egypt that have left thousands of members dead or in jail.
Yet it remains a deeply controversial organisation: from within its ranks came Sayyid Qutb, the Islamist scholar executed by the Egyptians in 1966, who provided inspiration for, among others, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama Bin Laden's right-hand man.
News that Britain now wants to "engage" with this group will therefore shock many in the Middle East, not least the Egyptian government, with which Britain is still in sensitive negotiations over the repatriation of Muslim terror suspects held in British jails. Egypt is one of several countries with which Britain hopes to sign a "memorandum of understanding" giving assurances that any returned detainees will not be tortured.
The change of policy is a high-risk strategy in the war against terror, but the Foreign Office justifies it by arguing that western governments will be better able to influence the direction radical Islam takes if they develop a dialogue. "Engaging with movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood will help increase our understanding of 'political Islam' generally, as well as in the specific Egyptian context," says the leaked 17 January memo. "Incremental enhancement of contacts may help in discouraging radicalisation. Interacting with 'political Islam' is an important element of our Engaging with the Islamic World strategy and we should be trying to influence these groups, who often have significant reach with the 'grass roots'. It also gives us the opportunity to challenge their perception of the west, including of the UK, and on their prescriptions for solving the challenges facing Egypt and the region [sic]."
The memo also exposes the pitfalls of the strategy. In a section marked "background", officials relate what happened when junior diplomats met the Brotherhood in the past: "Until 2002, FCO officials have had infrequent working-level (second secretary) contact with Muslim Brotherhood members of parliament. However this was noticed by the Egyptian authorities who made clear their displeasure. Since 2002 we have had only occasional contacts with MB members including one or two contacts with parliamentarians and random unplanned encounters."
The decision to revive the contacts follows months of research into the organisation's position on terrorism. A study prepared last summer with the help of MI6 (also seen by the NS) concluded that there were no direct links to acts of violence, although charitable donations are likely to have found their way to Hamas, which the Foreign Office describes as "the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood in all but name".
A detailed memo from 19 July 2005 from Angus McKee, a senior FCO Middle East official, shows that the Foreign Office believes the Brotherhood is a political threat to the Mubarak regime, which has attempted to demonise the organisation by dubbing it At the same time, the July document concludes that, although "there is no evidence that the Egyptian MB itself is now engaged in any terrorist activity", it is not far removed from extremism: "The intellectual, political and geographical milieux which the MB inhabits means [sic] that there will always be members who move to more violent activity, even terrorism, in other organisations."
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."
The Foreign Office is in a difficult position. That the Muslim Brotherhood is gaining in strength in the Middle East is beyond question. For many in the Islamic world, the Ikhwan are heroes. Mercilessly repressed in the past, they can present themselves as the authentic voice of the masses, where socialist and nationalist groups have failed. At the same time, engagement with a group so closely associated with people who have called for jihad against the west will be unpalatable to many in this country. It will also cause anger in both Egypt and Israel.
In the 20th century, the Foreign Office was celebrated and vilified in equal measure for its sympathy for the Arab cause. The course it decides to steer with the Muslim Brotherhood will be one of its great tests in the 21st century.
To see the full documents go to our website at: [http://www.newstatesman.com/brotherhood]
The rise of the Brotherhood
1928 The Muslim Brotherhood is founded in Cairo by Hassan al-Banna, who calls for a return to "original Islam" and the introduction of sharia law by democratic means.
1936-37 Branches are founded in Lebanon and Syria.
1948 Brothers fight in the Arab-Israeli war. The Brotherhood now has 500,000 members across the Arab world. In Egypt, the prime minister is assassinated by a Brother; the organisation is banned.
1949 Al-Banna is killed by government agents in Cairo.
1950 The Brotherhood is re-legalised - as a purely religious body.
1952 The movement assists the anti-British revolution in Egypt, but soon falls out of favour with the new government. "terrorist". But while the Brotherhood's aim is to institute sharia law in Egypt, the Foreign Office is convinced that it intends to do so through democratic means.
1954 In Egypt, an assassination attempt on President Gamal Abdel Nasser, led by a Brother, fails. Five Brothers are executed; thousands more flee to Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Lebanon
1981 President Anwar al-Sadat is assassinated by four Brothers.
1982 The Syrian wing of the Brotherhood is violently suppressed.
1984 The Brotherhood co-operates with left-wing groups to winparliamentary seats in Egypt, but members are subject to harassment.
1987 Hamas is founded in Gaza: its charter describes it as "one of the wings of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine".
2005 In Egypt's first free elections, Brotherhood candidates gain 88 seats in the 454-strong People's Assembly. The movement is now Egypt's largest opposition group and enjoys strong popular