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Ministers mustn't be talked into backing the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (or anywhere else)

by Paul Goodman

A fortnight ago, as Arabs staged their first-ever mass revolt for democracy, I quoted Burke, in a bid to capture the mix of wonder and fear that it sparked for some.  Here are his words again, written in the early days of the French Revolution:

"- What Spectators, and what actors!  England gazing with astonishment at a French struggle for Liberty, and not knowing whether to blame or to applaud!  The thing indeed, though I thought I saw something like it in progress for several years, has still something in it paradoxical and Mysterious."

Now Tunisia's Cabinet has fallen, Egypt's has followed, Tunisia's ruler has fled and Egypt's may, too.

To which your response - as you wrestle with the marmalade spoon and snarl at Andrew Marr - is likely to be: who cares?  None of our business.  Leave them all alone.  No more Blair wars.  Nor more British deaths.  I agree, by and large, but that doesn't really matter - at least, compared to a levelling truth: none of us knows what will happen next.

Burt Alistair Alistair Burt, the Foreign Office Minister, said on Friday that “I think the tide is turning very strongly.  It’s not for us to sit here in London and work out where that tide is going to go.”  He was right: the Foreign Office has no more idea than you or I have.  Sir Humphrey hasn't a clue.

Nonetheless, were you, I and he to sit down with paper, a pen, and a limitless supply of coffee, we'd probably come up with the following possible outcomes.  First, life carries on much as before, with the army and with or without Mubarak.  Second, Egypt moves haltingly towards democracy - that ideal which bundles together a culture of free elections, the rule of law, strong civil institutions, a liberal economy, and religious freedom.  Third, Egypt, one of the two founts of modern Islamism, becomes an Islamist state which, at best, ends up where Turkey may be going and, at worst, as a Sunni Iran (or, worse still, in civil war).

On reflection, let me take that back.  We don't need the coffee (or Sir Humphrey, for that matter) to pluck these guesses hesitantly from the air.  Nor do others, and many of their thoughts are concentrating on the Muslim Brotherhood, the product of one of those two streams of belief.  Malcolm Rifkind, Ian Black, Quilliam's Maajid Nawaz, Ian Birrell  - these and others have turned their gaze on the movement founded by Hassan al Banna and furthered by Sayyid Qutb.  Obscure names from a distant country?  Perhaps, but maybe not so remote: al Banna's grandson, the controversial Tariq Ramadan, is based here in Britain.

One tends to hear two views of the Brotherhood.  The first is that they're reactionary extremists, bent on an Islamic state.  The second is that they're misunderstood modernisers, committed to democratic governance.  There's fierce disagreement both about this and their similarity or difference of outlook from Al Qaeda's: for a flavour of the divergence, try here and here.  That the Brotherhood isn't a single structured hierarchy (plus the distance of language and culture) makes understanding no easier: it's better viewed as a network of organisations based in different countries.

Banned in Syria, it launched a bloody coup in 1982 which met a far bloodier response.  It's too big in Egypt for similar treatment, so it's barred on the one hand, yet Brotherhood members sit in its parliament as independents on the other.  It's presently involved in protests in Jordan. As I said earlier, Ramadan, who's Brotherhood aristocracy, (so to speak) lectures in Britain; and as I wrote two weeks ago, Tunisian Brotherhood leaders such as Rashid Ghannouchi and Mohammed Ali Harrath live here.  So, according to the organisation's website, does the Secretary-General of its international organisation.

I don't believe that all contact with the Brotherhood should be shunned.  Indeed, sounding out their leading figures is surely part of what MI6 are paid for.  Were I an MI6 operative and spoke the requisite languages - neither of which is the case - I'd try to listen with interest, care, and a scepticism and detachment which, very occasionally, seems to have been lacking.  However, that's a different matter from senior civil servants chewing the cud with the Ikhwan - let alone promoting them, as has sometimes happened.

With Egypt rocked by riots, and one Arab autocrat gone already, the view of our security service, police and civil service elites is no longer an academic question, if it ever was.  As I never tire of pointing out, the Brotherhood doesn't represent the bulk of British Muslims.  The organisations associated with it here, the Muslim Association of Britain and the British Muslim Initiative, control only a handful of mosques, if that - though the former remains part of the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board, having been involved with the project from the start under the guidance of Lord Ahmed.

Furthermore, it isn't running the riots in Egypt, though it's certainly watching from the wings.  As observers as varied as London-based Nawaz and Cairo-sent BBC reporters keep pointing out, the demonstrators on the streets of Egypt's cities seem to be leaderless, as in Tunisia.  With prices rising and unemployment high, they're demanding a national minimum wage rather than proclaiming that "Islam is the solution", and urging an open democracy rather than a religious state.  Ghannouchi's recent interview in the Financial Times (£) suggests that his movement isn't a force in Tunisia: his daughter, wisely, is sticking to bashing Mubarak.

All this leads to a question: why would anyone in government seek to back the Brotherhood or other Islamist movements, rather than liberal reformers?  Are such moves, in the minds of those who help shape policy, part of a strategy of making the bad the enemy of the worst?  If so, the best that can be said of such a programme is that it's a gamble, and the worst that this is at daunting odds.  Al Qaeda and the Brotherhood aren't separated by a firewall in ideological terms.  Rather, they're like different rooms that are linked none the less by a common corridor.  Most don't travel from one to the other, though some do (try here and here).

But instead of wondering what the Brotherhood would be like if it did take power, it's worth looking at what it's like when it does.  I didn't support Israel's 2009 incursion into Gaza.  But the latter's problems simply can't be blamed exclusively on Israel and Egypt.  Hamas behaved no better than Fatah when it seized control, and there've been crackdowns on women's freedoms - see here, here, here and here.  There's no consensus within the Egyptian Brotherhood on whether women or Christians should be able to exercise political power, or about the rights of gays or the freedom, say, to drink alcohol.

Imagine a series of Muslim Brotherhood-led governments in the Middle East.  Would they be more or less likely than present ones to promote equal opportunities and religious minorities?  To pursue economic reform and, yes, civil liberties?  To seek a two-state solution for Israel/Palestine?  To back Hamas or the Palestinian Authority?  To shrug at Iran's drive for nuclear weapons?  To support the Taliban in Afghanistan, where our troops are serving?  To be better disposed to liberal democracies, as they pursue the integration of state and religion?  To back and fund Islamists in Britain who support attacks on civilians or on our allies

The drift of the answers is surely self-evident.  To repeat: I'm against sending our over-extended forces off on a second Suez adventure.  But there's help that governments can offer to groups abroad: encouragement, introductions, advice, patronage, backing, public support, money (usually taxpayers').  These are strange times in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East and, if Government policy is to be abroad as it's meant to be here, the provision of any of these things must be restricted to democrats and, in the broadest sense of the term, liberals.

Martin Bright's revealing paper for Policy Exchange - "When Progressives Treat With Reactionaries" - contained a stash of leaked documents.  One was a letter on our Cairo Embassy's paper from our former Ambassador to Egypt, Sir Derek Plumbly.  He wrote: "Obviously, it is desirable to talk to Islamists if we can...But 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 Egypt."

I close with the end of the letter from Burke with which I began this article -

"What will be the Event it is hard I think still to say.  To form a solid constitution requires Wisdom as well as spirit, and whether the French have wise heads among them, or if they possess such whether they have authority equal to their wisdom, is to be seen; In the meantime the progress of this whole affair is one of the most curious matters of Speculation that ever was exhibited."


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