In explaining his decision to order an investigation into the Muslim Brotherhood earlier this week, David Cameron cited the gruesome murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich last spring as an example of a wider terrorist threat facing the United Kingdom. It was a disingenuous association to draw, as Cameron must himself realise. The decision to investigate the Brotherhood probably has next to nothing to do with national security, and instead relates to Britain’s ongoing policy of projecting power and influence in the Middle East in alliance with the region’s autocrats.
Background: the Brothers versus the Royals
When the wave of Arab uprisings broke in late 2010 and early 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood and related organisations were among the political forces best placed to capitalise, quickly rising to power in Tunisia and Egypt, and stepping to the forefront elsewhere. Although they appear to have been more interested in taking over management of the status quo than in undertaking genuinely revolutionary measures, this in itself is enough to spook existing elites, not least the monarchical regimes of the Arabian peninsula. The Saudis in particular (as well as the Emiratis) despise the Brotherhood for the same reason that they despise Iran: because it offers a republican model of governance which makes a rival claim to the religious legitimacy on which the House of Saud has long relied. For this reason, the downfall of Hosni Mubarak (a key military ally for Riyadh) and the subsequent rise of the Brotherhood was the source of almost existential angst in the Saudi kingdom.
It is important to distinguish between the broad Islamist family of which the Muslim Brotherhood is a part and the global jihadist tendency represented by Al Qaeda. The Brothers are right wing social conservatives and staunch capitalists whose politics most openDemocracy readers would find highly objectionable. They are also committed to electoral politics, unlike Al Qaeda which pours scorn on such approaches. In the few cases where the Brotherhood has taken up arms, for example in Syria, it has been in the context of pursuing national goals and not the international adventurism favoured by jihadi groups.
In office, the Egyptian Brotherhood succeeded in alienating large swathes of the population in an impressively short space of time, overseeing a continuation of human rights abuses, displaying swaggering autocratic high-handedness and abject incompetence in their management of the economy. When multitudes came out in protests last summer to demand the resignation of President Mohammed Morsi, the military saw its chance and staged a coup, imprisoning Morsi along with thousands of Brotherhood members. The subsequent crackdown on the movement has seen hundreds killed in the streets by security forces and hundreds more sentenced to death in a farcical mass trial. Subsequent to the coup there have been several armed attacks on state targets and one on tourists in Sinai, with responsibility claimed by an Al Qaeda-inspired outfit named Ansar Beit al-Maqdis. There is little discernable evidence that the Brotherhood has been involved in this campaign. While individual Brotherhood members have doubtless engaged in acts of violence post-coup, this does not appear to be in line with any strategic decision made by the leadership, which in any case is mostly imprisoned at this point and incapable of organising an insurgency.
Cairo’s formal designation of the Brotherhood as a terrorist group and its framing of the post-coup crackdown in those terms (despite the fact that the main perpetrator of terrorism in the country today is the state itself) looks very much like a political strategy designed to eliminate a political rival. This is clearer still in the case of Saudi Arabia, enthusiastic sponsor of the Egyptian coup regime, which has not only designated the Brotherhood as a terrorist group, but passed new laws deeming as terrorism any political speech or act a millimetre short of total obedience to the monarchy. The UAE has also cracked down hard on the Brotherhood, and last month the Saudis, UAE and Bahrain dramatically withdrew their ambassadors to Gulf ally Qatar due in no small part to the latter’s alleged coddling of the Brothers.
While the Brotherhood may not objectively be a revolutionary force, it is certainly regarded as such from the ultra-conservative point of view of the Saudi royals and their regional allies. Painting a political challenge as a terrorist threat, and then crushing it, is the Saudi-led alliance’s strategy for ending the Arab spring (just as it is for the Assad regime in Syria). The British investigation into the Muslim Brotherhood announced this week needs to be understood in this context.
Aside from the fact that the Brotherhood does not fit into the jihadist category cited as a threat to the UK by Cameron this week, there are clear reasons why the purported need for the investigation should not be taken at face value.
The first is the very fact that the investigation was announced at all. The security services no doubt conduct assessments of various groups on a regular basis, but it is hard to recollect them ever feeling the need to publically declare that they were doing so. The suspicion must arise that the British government wanted to come as close as it could to making a public endorsement of the anti-Brotherhood narrative being peddled by Cairo and Riyadh.
Secondly, the fact that the investigation will be led by current UK ambassador to Saudi Arabia Sir John Jenkins – the man in charge of maintaining good relations with the Saudi court - makes the link to Saudi policy inescapable. Inevitably taking a leading role under Jenkins will be Sir John Sawyers, head of the Secret Intelligence Services, former British ambassador to the Mubarak regime, and former foreign policy adviser to Tony Blair (Blair has been an enthusiastic supporter of the Egyptian coup). While the Foreign Office is thought to take a more sensible view of the Brotherhood, it is the intelligence services who will apparently be in the driver’s seat. The former head of MI6 Sir Richard Dearlove is quoted as describing the Brotherhood as “at heart a terrorist organisation”. Dearlove of course ran British intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war, so this is a man who knows a threat to national security when one is being invented or exaggerated for geopolitical expediency.
As Rosemary Hollis has argued, it is not hard to see which voices and intelligence sources will have the most privileged access to those conducting the investigation, and it won’t be those sympathetic to the Brotherhood, or even those taking a detached, neutral view of it. The outcome of the investigation will plainly have no credibility as an objective assessment of the Brotherhood, its ideology or its activities. It will simply be an expression of the British state’s approach to the threat posed by the Arab uprisings to British interests in the Middle East.
Saudi pressure or British interests?
It has frequently been inferred over the past couple of days that the investigation is emblematic of a craven attitude toward the Saudi kingdom and the Gulf regimes on the part of the British state. Indeed, in the words of one senior UK official quoted by the Financial Times, Whitehall has “been under huge pressure, as have the Americans, from the Saudis to do something about the Muslim Brotherhood”. Clearly Britain places enormous strategic value on its enduring alliances with states that control the energy heartlands of the planet, buy British made arms in fantastic quantities, and plough back petrodollars to the City of London and the British economy more generally. But the balance of power in the relationship still lies further towards London.
Post-imperial hangover aside, Britain remains a nuclear-armed military power with global reach, one of five states with a veto on the UN Security Council, the world’s sixth largest arms exporter, and the sixth largest economy in the world, hosting one of the key financial centres. From the point of view of socially isolated royal families in existential need of armed protection, diplomatic connections, and with more investable wealth than they know what to do with, an alliance with the UK remains a major asset. For its part, London, like Washington, will back whoever is best placed to serve its strategic interests. This might have been the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – in spite of Saudi objections - if the Brothers had performed with some degree of political intelligence and managerial aptitude. As it is, the old guard is back in charge, and Britain seems pretty clear about which side it’s taking in the latest regional convulsions.
What are the likely effects of Cameron’s cynical move? In the first instance, the political boost to Egyptian coup leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was obvious and immediate, coming just days after he announced his presidential bid. “London Shakes The Terrorists” was the headline in one pro-regime newspaper yesterday morning, while the foreign ministry in Cairo has welcomed the investigation as effectively a validation of the regime’s own ‘anti-terrorist’ narrative. This donation of political capital to a state guilty of mass murder and unprecedented repression should be a source of real shame to the UK government. It is probably the most egregious act of collaboration with violently anti-democratic forces since Britain acquiesced in the crushing of a peaceful uprising in Bahrain in early 2011. The Saudis and Emiratis will doubtless now be pointing to Cameron’s investigation to justify their own McCarthyite crackdowns as well.
Ironically, the other narrative effectively validated by Cameron this week is that of Al Qaeda’s recruiting sergeants who have frequently taunted Islamists that they are wasting their time with politics and the ballot box. If you want to drive people to jihadism then closing off space for political expression is certainly one way to go about it. Bashar al-Assad’s violent response to peaceful calls for democracy provided a fertile breeding ground for extremism and marginalised his moderate opponents (as was probably the intention). Sisi’s ‘war on terror’ will likely have a not disimilar effect, as will the Saudi-led crackdown elsewhere. If Cameron sincerely wanted to deal with the threat of Al Qaeda style terrorism he would have forcefully challenged these practices amongst his allies. That he didn’t gives a revealing indication of the government’s priorities.
Meanwhile at home, Cameron’s investigation will serve to further stigmatise the Muslim community, again broadly tarring political Islam with the jihadi brush and thereby validating another dangerous narrative: that of violent bigots like the EDL. So much for the security of the British public.
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