Muslim Brotherhood review: a bad idea from the start

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Source: The Guardian

It did not even seem like a good idea at the time. British diplomats warned from the start, in April 2014, that David Cameron’s decision to conduct a review into the Muslim Brotherhood would be creating a hostage to fortune. Heavy pressure from autocratic Arab countries that were vital markets for British business sat uneasily with the issue of an Islamist organisation in a multicultural democracy.

Leading the lobby was Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, where opposition to Islamism is obsessive and many groups – including some based in the UK – are proscribed for alleged links to terrorism. Saudi Arabia was more reticent. Egypt – where the democratically elected but deeply unpopular Mohamed Morsi was overthrown to the accompaniment of mass killings and arrests – also pressed hard but carried less weight economically.

Yet Cameron had his own reasons to be concerned. In late 2013, the prime minster “threw a fit”, according to one colleague, when no one in government knew anything about a big Muslim Brotherhood event in London. Arab spring advances for Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia had sent the issue to the top of the foreign policy agenda. And before that there was the question of Hamas, which won an election in Palestine but then faced proscription as a terrorist organisation by the US, the EU and Israel.

Whitehall insiders argued that if ordering the review was a mistake, it was compounded by announcing it publicly. That meant it would be scrutinised not only by the Arab regimes issuing veiled threats about the consequences of any undesired outcome , it would also be examined closely by British Islamists and their supporters who felt fundamental freedoms were being threatened.

“Those states and parties who clamoured for British government action will be angered that the group is not banned,” said Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding. “Those British Muslims and others who objected to the review will feel they are the subject of a witch-hunt.”

The issue straddled foreign and domestic policy – often a recipe for trouble. Home Office officials took a relatively liberal line, arguing that Islamists in the UK were “Christian democrats with beards”. The Foreign Office was bitterly divided about policy towards Morsi in Egypt, with many keen to see the success of the first Islamist government as a way of undermining jihadi narratives. But British diplomats in other Arab capitals heard repeated complaints about “Londonistan” as a haven for dangerous subversives.

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