David Cameron’s decision to order an investigation into the “philosophy and activities” of the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly as they relate to Britain, stems from a broader nervousness in western European capitals about a wave of Islamist extremism and jihadism fed by the chaos in and around Syria.
But Downing Street’s decision also looks suspiciously like a response to specific political developments in Egypt, where the Brotherhood was founded in 1928, and to external pressure from close British allies.
The US and Saudi Arabia were never comfortable with the Brotherhood’s ascent to power in the person of Mohamed Morsi, who became Egypt’s first democratically elected president in 2012.
So when Morsi was overthrown by a military coup in July last year, the Obama administration, while bleating about the importance of democracy and the Arab spring, made no great objection.
The US, which for decades backed another dictatorial Egyptian general, former president Hosni Mubarak, with billions of dollars in aid, quietly embraced the new junta’s leader, General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. Sisi represented a way of doing things that Washington was used to, even if was heavy-handed. Here, apparently, was a man they could do business with.
In fact, Sisi’s efforts to strengthen his grip on power as he prepares to stand for the presidency next month have outdone Mubarak for sheer bloody-minded repressiveness. He reinstituted the Mubarak-era ban on the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi was locked up, charged with treason and put on trial. Brotherhood supporters were chased off the streets with lethal brutality by the security forces. And, for the most part, all other regime critics and independent journalists including an Al-Jazeera English team have been silenced.
Occasional mild criticism aside, Sisi has been backed all the way by the US, which maintains that restoring stability in Egypt is the overriding priority. Once the country is under control, White House aides say, a “transition to free and fair elections and democratic governance” will follow. It would be hard to find anybody in Washington or Cairo who really believes this – because if there were free elections, the Brotherhood would win again.
“Obama’s pro-democracy rhetoric notwithstanding, his administration has publicly supported the notion that the Sisi regime is leading Egypt back to democracy long after it became obvious that the opposite was occurring,” the Washington Post commented this week.
“Since July, the generals have presided over more than 2,500 deaths in political violence and at least 16,000 arrests, including not just the imprisonment of Mr Morsi and the leadership of his Muslim Brotherhood but also those of secular journalists and liberal organisers of the 2011 revolution. Last week, following a two-day trial, a judge sentenced 529 Muslim Brotherhood members to death for the killing of one policeman.”
The expectation in Washington is that once Sisi has won what is likely to be a Mubarak-style one-man election race, the US will declare Egypt back on track (that is to say, no longer in the hands of suspected anti-American forces) and that suspended military aid will resume.
The remorseless crackdown on the Brotherhood has been enthusiastically backed by Saudi Arabia, another influential British ally and Egypt’s other big paymaster after the US. Like the UAE, some other Gulf states, Israel and Russia, Riyadh proscribes the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation.
It is Saudi Arabia, according to the latest reports, which complained that Brotherhood leaders who fled Egypt after the coup have made London their new base. The extent to which this may be true, and whether it is significant, is part of the inquiry launched by Cameron. The investigation will also look at Brotherhood links to extremism, including an attack in Sinai in February that killed four people.
The Brotherhood, a religious and social charity that evolved into a political force, is officially opposed to violence for political ends. But that is far from the whole story. It is a broad-based movement that embraces a wide range of opinions and activists. It has offshoots in most Arab countries.
Hamas in Palestine, which started as a branch of the Brotherhood, espouses armed struggle. It was the Brotherhood which first organised opposition to the regime of Hafez al-Assad in Syria, Bashar’s father, with bloody results in Hama in 1982.
And it is Brotherhood supporters in Egypt resisting the military takeover who have often resorted to force (and who have often been killed). But they do not represent the movement as a whole, nor are they a majority.
If western countries, including Britain, are sincere about engaging the Muslim world in the post-9/11 era, then a witch-hunt or a ban on one of its foremost popular movements at the behest of the Americans, Saudis and an illegitimate Egyptian junta does not make good sense. Britain has a long and proud history of hosting political refugees and exile groups fleeing repression. Muslims, be they from Egypt (or Syria), are no different.
This article was written for and first published on The Guardian.