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Muslim Brotherhood a 'firewall' against extremism, says UK

Most political Islamists are not involved in violence, but are actually victims of violence themselves, foreign office agrees
Muslim Brotherhood members demonstrate against the military-backed government in Cairo (AFP/file photo)

The British government has rowed back from the main conclusion of a controversial 2014 review into the Muslim Brotherhood conducted by John Jenkins, the UK's then-ambassador to Saudi Arabia, which suggested that the organisation had served as a “rite of passage” for violent militants.

It now appears to agree with an assessment offered by the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) following its inquiry into the government's policy towards "Political Islam" last year which concluded that political Islamists were a “firewall” against violent extremism and should be engaged with, either when in power or in opposition.

The damaging admission comes in a series of responses from the British foreign office to the highly critical inquiry which were published on Monday.

In its responses, the foreign office agreed that the vast majority of political Islamists were not involved in violence, but rather were the victims of violence themselves.

It also confirmed that political Islamists who self-identify as democrats should be allowed to participate in elections, and that the British government should engage with them, both when they are in power and in opposition.

The government said it agreed with the committee’s conclusion that religion and politics would overlap for the foreseeable future and stated that "the vast majority of political Islamists are not involved in violence”.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson met Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry in Cairo last month (Reuters)
The foreign office said its engagement with political Islam was “an important element of our engagement with countries in the region”.

The reply said: “The government can confirm that FCO engagement with these groups…includes dialogue on human rights issues, in particular protecting the rights of women and religious freedom."

The foreign office also confirmed its opposition to “military intervention as a way to resolve disputes in the democratic system”. Still, in its dealings with Egyptian President Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi, Downing Street has persistently refused to call the events that brought him to power on 3 July 2013 a military coup.

Crispin Blunt, the chair of the foreign affairs committee, told MEE he was “not unhappy” with these conclusions.

However, he was not able to comment on what Jenkins had said because his review remains secret. The government published what it called the "Main Findings" of Jenkins' report in December 2015 but has refused to publish the full document.

Jenkins himself refused to testify to the committee.

A senior source close to the Jenkins review confirmed to MEE that the former ambassador had indeed deemed the Brotherhood to be a “rite of passage” for al-Qaeda extremists.

The FAC in its report said the reasoning behind the Muslim Brotherhood review carried out by Jenkins remained “ opaque” and ministerial explanations as to why the foreign office would not allow the committee to see the full report were “ threadbare”.

Blunt said: "FCO (foreign office) officials have not met at an official level with the Muslim Brotherhood since 2013. We continue to believe that a complete understanding of the group requires an understanding of their history, including the events of 2013 and afterwards. It also requires the FCO to meet the group.”

"The government’s position on the Muslim Brotherhood is incoherent and it should redress this by re-engaging with it both here in the UK and abroad.”

- Tayab Ali, ITN Solicitors

The committee said the Jenkins review was fundamentally flawed because of its refusal to examine the effects on the Brotherhood of Egypt's 2013 military coup, which saw thousands of the group's supporters killed by the Egyptian security forces, and hundreds of people in its top leadership jailed.

“The FCO continues to ignore and fails to explain this omission, and does not address why and by whom the developments of 2013 and thereafter were deemed irrelevant to the Terms of Reference. It should do so now," the committee said.

Tayab Ali of ITN Solicitors, the UK firm that is representing the Muslim Brotherhood, said: “The government admission that political Islam represents a firewall against violent extremism runs directly counter to the policies of the Emiratis and the Saudis, who strong-armed David Cameron into setting up the Jenkins review.

"The government’s position on the Muslim Brotherhood is incoherent and it should redress this by re-engaging with it both here in the UK and abroad.”

The FCO’s responses to the committee are a stark turnaround from a 12-page summary of the Jenkins review.

In it, Jenkins was reported to have said: “Sir John concluded... that, for the most part, the Muslim Brotherhood have preferred non-violent incremental change on the grounds of expediency, often on the basis that political opposition will disappear when the process of Islamisation is complete.

"But they are prepared to countenance violence – including, from time to time, terrorism - where gradualism is ineffective.

“Sir John concluded that it was not possible to reconcile these views with the claim made by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in their evidence to the review that 'the Muslim Brotherhood has consistently adhered to peaceful means of opposition, renouncing all forms of violence throughout its existence'."

On Monday, however, the foreign office admitted that political Islamists play “a crucial role” in ensuring that political change comes about peacefully.

It said: “As events in the Middle East and North Africa have demonstrated, those who are subject to repression, feel disenfranchised, or locked out of the political process may turn to violence if they are unable to change their situation through peaceful means.

"Political Islamist groups, including their senior leaders, have a crucial role to play in ensuring that this happens in the MENA region”

- UK foreign office

"The best ‘firewall’ is to support the democratic process and to ensure that individuals have a voice. Political Islamist groups, including their senior leaders, have a crucial role to play in ensuring that this happens in the MENA region.”

On violence and terrorism, the committee noted that the foreign office had not contradicted the assessment of MPs who characterised the Egyptian Brotherhood as a “fundamentally non-violent group,” although in its response it did continue to maintain that “parts of the organisation have a highly ambiguous relationship with violent extremism.”

It quoted “media reports and credible academic studies” to show that a minority of the Egyptian Brotherhood supporters engaged alongside other Islamists in violent acts.

The starkly measured tone of the foreign office is further evidence of serious misgivings within the senior levels of the organisation over the way the Jenkins review was set up, and the difficulty then prime minister David Cameron had in publishing even a shortened version of it.

As Middle East Eye reported at the time, MI5 were against the review and MI6 soon discounted any links between the Muslim Brotherhood in the UK and a lethal bombing of a bus full of tourists in Egypt's Sinai.

After the report was concluded, it took the government a year and a half to produce its highly redacted main findings, which were published on 17 December, the last day on which the House sat before the Christmas recess.

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