UK parliamentary body challenges government over Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood
The recent history of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the UK's House of Commons is a sad story; it’s been a pliant tool of the British government masquerading as an independent body.
That has changed dramatically since, after the 2015 General Election, MPs elected a powerful new chairman with a mind of his own.
Crispin Blunt is a former British army officer and member of the ruling Conservative Party. However, he is no lackey of the British Establishment, and he has demonstrated this yet again with the announcement that he is to produce a report on political Islam.
This will cover much of the same ground as the recent British government investigation into the Muslim Brotherhood, overseen by a former British diplomat, Sir John Jenkins, whose senior appointments included several in the Middle East.
But the Foreign Affairs Committee report will approach political Islam from a very different angle to Sir John Jenkins.
Sir John was ordered by Prime Minister David Cameron to examine alleged links between the Brotherhood and terrorism. Furthermore, Cameron commissioned Sir John’s enquiry following protracted pressure from the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf states, all of which are bitterly hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The FAC report will examine Political Islam from an independent perspective. It is not seeking – as David Cameron was accused of doing - to disqualify Islamic movements from taking part in democratic politics by linking them to violence.
On the contrary, Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Crispin Blunt believes that Political Islam is entitled to play a role across the Middle East, and that it is in British interests to make that role as constructive as possible.
When I interviewed him ahead of the weekend, Mr Blunt told me that "people who are trying to express Islamist views within constitutional politics" have a "perfectly legitimate aspiration".
This amounts to a rare public acknowledgement from a senior British politician that parties sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood should be allowed fair access to modern democratic politics so long as they recognize minority rights – and places him at odds with parts of the British foreign policy establishment.
Mr Blunt’s enquiry comes at a moment when Britain’s links with the Muslim Brotherhood are fraught with difficulty. The British government has maintained close links with the regime of Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, which overthrew President Mohamed Morsi’s democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government in a coup d’etat in July 2013.
Britain also maintains intimate links with Saudi Arabia and neighbouring Gulf states, many of which classify the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorist.
Meanwhile, domestic organisations connected with the Muslim Brotherhood are kept at arm's length by the British authorities.
Mr Blunt told me that "if we use illegitimate and immoral violence and force to suppress legitimate political expression, then people who support that political ideology have nowhere to turn except violent resistance".
He warned that if Muslim Brotherhood associated political movements were not allowed to organise and compete then "in what direction do their supporters turn? You drive them into the hands of people who are, frankly, using the Quranic texts in a distorting way to encourage people to kill others who don’t agree with them".
Mr Blunt challenged the proposition that political Islam was necessarily a route to violent extremism, citing the example of the Islamist parties in Tunisia which, he said, had "made an accommodation with constitutional politics".
Mr Blunt also stressed that his enquiry would try and express "the ground rules about the freedoms that are universal to all people and all minorities in all countries that should be protected from political movements that might be seeking to permanently impose their own view of life on other people".
The Foreign Affairs Committee has called for written submissions before 28 April, and will be hearing evidence over the summer. It is simultaneously carrying out separate enquiries into the British role in the fight against the Islamic State group and the British intervention in Libya.
This Libyan enquiry is potentially personally embarrassing for David Cameron. The Anglo-French intervention of 2011 succeeded in dislodging Muammar Gaddafi as Libyan leader, but since then the country has descended into chaos and civil war, with significant portions of the country controlled by Islamic State.
Early this month, US President Barack Obama uttered a series of scathing criticisms of David Cameron’s handling of the aftermath of the conflict in an interview with Atlantic Monthly magazine.
Following those comments by the president, the FAC has summoned Cameron before its committee. It is unusual for a prime minister to appear before a departmental committee, and Downing Street has yet to reply to the invitation.
- Peter Oborne was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013. He recently resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph. His books include The Triumph of the Political Class; The Rise of Political Lying;and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: The clock face of British Parliament's Elizabeth Tower, more commonly referred to as "Big Ben" is seen through guardrails on 1 December, 2015 (AFP).