Egypt’s then-president-elect Mohamed Morsi addresses tens of thousands of Egyptians in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on 29 June, 2012 (AFP)
The British government’s investigation into the Muslim Brotherhood had serious shortcomings that have damaged the country’s reputation for fair dealing, parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee said in a new report on “political Islam” published on Monday.
The scathing assessment of the government-ordered 2014 review into the Brotherhood’s activities also concluded that the appointment of Sir John Jenkins, then the UK’s ambassador in Saudi Arabia, to lead the inquiry was misguided.
“The opacity of the process, the obvious charge around motivation for the review, and the failure to publish it in full, left the review’s main findings wholly open to criticism,” it said.
“Given that the review was led by one of the FCO’s [Foreign and Commonwealth Office] most senior diplomats, these shortfalls damaged the UK’s reputation for fair dealing more generally.
“The government should immediately publish as much of the evidence given to the Muslim Brotherhood Review as possible, in the interest of transparency and the credibility of the process.”
The committee added that the secrecy surrounding the Jenkins report had even hindered its own, separate inquiry into political Islam: “We were disappointed that the government, despite two formal requests, did not see fit to provide the committee with access to a full copy of the Muslim Brotherhood review, even under controlled conditions; nor was it prepared to provide us with a redacted copy.”
The only material relating to the review to have been made public is a partial document of its “main findings” which was published in December 2015 on the final day before the parliamentary recess for Christmas.
The appointment of Jenkins had “created the perception that Saudi Arabia, an interested party that had designated the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation the month before the Review was announced, might have undue influence over the review’s report,” and in turn “undermined confidence in the impartiality of the FCO’s work on such an important and contentious subject,” the committee said.
This perception was compounded, the committee said, by the failure of the report to mention what it described as “the most significant event in the Brotherhood’s history: its removal from power in Egypt in 2013, the year after being democratically elected, through a military intervention”.
It also criticised the FCO’s assessment that “understanding the Brotherhood “did not require” an examination of events following this removal from power, including the killing in August 2013 of large numbers of protesters who sympathised with the Brotherhood, and the continuing repression of the group in Egypt and elsewhere.
“This violence and repression are clearly factors that affect how the Brotherhood behaves; the review should have taken them into account when assessing the group, and the FCO should do so in the future.”
“We absolutely agree with the FCO on the need for a nuanced approach to the broad phenomenon of ‘political Islam’,” Crispin Blunt, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee and a member of parliament for the governing Conservative Party, said.
“We only regret that this approach does not appear to have been applied to the Muslim Brotherhood Review, which failed to mention some of what we saw as the most elementary factors that determine the group’s current behaviour.”
In a statement, ITN Solicitors, the Brotherhood’s solicitors in the UK, said that the report vindicated the group’s complaints about the conduct of the review.
“The committee’s report completely vindicates my client and sets the record straight,” said Tayab Ali, a partner at ITN Solicitors.
“My client offered the Jenkins review open and sincere engagement but that engagement was not reciprocated. Instead, they were met with a review that was flawed from its outset, riddled with impropriety and lacking any form of transparency.
“It concerns me that FCO ‘hindered’ the committee’s scrutiny and treated them with the same contempt it showed my client. The FCO should now publish the full review report.
“Failing to engage with political Islamists is a failure to understand the dynamics of the Middle East and North Africa region. A proper democratic process should include all the people that choose to participate in it and not just the people we would like to include.”
Democrats and ‘extremists’
The report into political Islam also sets out how the government should deal with Islamist political parties in the Middle East.
Regarding the definition of political Islam itself, the committee’s report stated that it “is not a clearly defined phrase, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office uses it to describe a broad array of groups. These range from groups that the FCO describes as embracing ‘democratic principles and liberal values’, to those that it says hold ‘intolerant and extremist views’.”
The committee said it was “inappropriate to place these two types of Islamism within the same, single category.
“If the FCO wishes to encourage Islamist groups towards democracy, non-violence, and a flexible interpretation of their faith, then we recommend that it devises a vocabulary that doesn’t group these types together.”
They suggested three standards to distinguish which Islamist groups they should work with: “i) Participation in, and preservation of, democracy. Support for democratic culture, including the commitment to give up power following election defeat. ii) An interpretation of faith that protects the rights, freedoms and social policies that are broadly congruent with UK values. iii) Non-violence, as a fundamental and unambiguous commitment.”
“Through its counter-extremism and counter-terrorism strategies, it is clear what values the UK opposes,” Blunt said. “But the UK’s standing in the world also depends on it clearly articulating, through the FCO, the values that this country supports and therefore the groups with which we will engage.
“We have suggested three values that can be a basis for the FCO to assess, on equal terms, groups and movements around the world. They apply to ‘political Islamists’ and their opponents, as well as other political philosophies.”
To this end, the committee recommended political Islamists “be allowed to freely participate in democratic processes, and the FCO should use the ability of political Islamists to take part as one of the key criteria for defining free elections in the MENA region.”
At the same time, the report recommended that the FCO “encourage a broader understanding of democracy, and condemn majoritarian and exclusionary practices whether they are committed by Islamists, their opponents, or other governments”.
Muslim Brotherhood: Secretive, but not a secret organisation
The committee said it agreed with the government’s decision not to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, because it has stated that “it does not aspire to achieve its goals through violence”.
It noted, however, that “the Government believes that the group might be willing to consider violence where gradualism is ineffective. But it added that if the Brotherhood had supported or condoned violence then “Egypt would be a far more violent place today” because of the brutal repression that its supporters had faced since Morsi was overthrown in 2013.
While not seeing it as a terrorist group, the committee still had reservations about the Brotherhood’s time in power.
“The FCO should have made clearer its concerns over the incompetent, non-inclusive, and narrow nature and behaviour of President Mohamed Morsi’s government in Egypt,” the report said.
“The FCO should also condemn the influence of the military in politics as contrary to UK values. The FCO should not let itself be seen as justifying the way in which the FJP was removed from power in Egypt,” it continued, referring to the Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party in Egypt.
The committee said that the severe repression the group faces in Egypt and elsewhere “makes the group unlikely to be fully transparent about its structure and operations. We have found the Muslim Brotherhood to be a secretive organisation, but not a secret one.”
The report went on to criticise some political Islamist groups’ communications practices, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, which gave “contradictory messages in Arabic and English. And some of the responses that the group offered to our questions gave the impression of reluctance to offer a straight answer. The FCO is right to judge political Islamists by both their words and their actions.”
Indicative of the cautious line the committee took, the report then said that “fears over the introduction of a restrictive interpretation of ‘Islamic law’ by the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in Egypt were partly based on speculation rather than experience.”
The committee then cited Ennahda in Tunisia and the PJD in Morocco as examples of “very pragmatic” Islamists in power, who articulated their ideology “in a broad sense, through the promotion of welfare policies.
“The FCO should see the pragmatism of some political-Islamist parties as an opportunity to engage with them,” the report said.
Singling out the example of Tunisia, it said that “political Islam could in some countries be a way of providing a democratic alternative for political, social, and economic development and a counter-narrative against more extremist ideologies.
“The vast majority of political Islamists are involved in no violence whatsoever,” the report continued. “Because of this, and because of their broader status as a ‘firewall’ against extremism, political Islamists have suffered criticism and attack from ISIL [the Islamic State group] and other extremist organisations.”
The committee criticised the violence meted out to political Islamists by governments of the region, using Egypt as a prime example: “The FCO should highlight and condemn all human rights abuses, including those against political Islamists. The scale of political and civil turmoil in Egypt in recent years is unprecedented. The FCO must continue to do all it can to encourage the application of basic human and political rights in the country.”
Taking a historical perspective, the report then set out the long view: “Political Islam is far from the only firewall, but in the Muslim world it is a vehicle through which a significant element of citizens can and should be able to address their grievances. The nature of Islam makes it more likely that religion and politics will remain overlapping for the foreseeable future, and emerging democratically accountable systems will need to accommodate this.”
Blunt personally underlined this point: “Political Islamists self-identifying as democrats have performed well in recent elections in the Middle East and North Africa region. We feel that the challenges and opportunities of engaging with them will remain for the foreseeable future. The FCO needs a clear basis for this engagement, and the failings of the Muslim Brotherhood Review must not be repeated if this engagement is to be credible.”