The Times of London this week reported that UK Prime Minister David Cameron has ordered an investigation into the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood. The paper said he has asked British intelligence services to examine claims the Brotherhood was responsible for a bomb attack in Sinai in February, which killed three tourists.
The original article is paywalled but you can get the gist of it here.
A spokesperson for Number 10 claimed that the investigation is part of an attempt to "get a better handle on what the Brotherhood stands for," since its recent political role has outstripped the UK's understanding of its aims. Britain, and London in particular, has proved a popular location for several Brotherhood members exiled from Egypt after a military coup last July that ushered in a wave of violence and unrest unprecedented in the country's modern history.
Not that it should be continually incumbent on an organization that officially renounced political violence decades ago to prove its non-involvement in terrorist activity, but the attack that MI5 and MI6 are investigating was anyway claimed by Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, a militant group that reportedly accused Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's ousted president and Muslim Brotherhood member, of apostasy. The two are not what you would call close.
The Times said the UK government is concerned the Brotherhood could be plotting terror attacks in Britain. Intelligence services have reportedly been handed evidence that Brotherhood leaders "held a meeting to decide [...] strategy in London late last year" -- not exactly a watertight prosecution in the making.
It is hard not to view these developments in the context of the behavior of two of Britain's strongest (and richest) regional allies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Both recently followed the lead of the military-installed government in Egypt by designating the Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Saudi in particular is keen to assert its narrative after a rather public falling out with Qatar, whom Riyadh accused of meddling in the affairs of other Gulf nations.
The relationship between Saudi and the UK is long and mutually lucrative, and one which Britain presumably would not want damaged by Riyadh's discomfort with the amount of top Brotherhood brass who call London home. Indeed, we are told that London's ambassador to Saudi, Sir John Jenkins, has been asked to report on the Brotherhood's "philosophy and values and alleged connections with extremism and violence" by July. If Cameron's investigation is beginning to seem a little biased from the outset, we also learn that Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of MI6, has been drafted in to help. His view on the Brotherhood? It is "at heart a terrorist organization."
The former prime minister and Middle East envoy has made at least three visits to Cairo this year and has praised Egypt's president-in-waiting, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, while condemning the Brotherhood for trying "to take the country away from its basic values of hope and progress."
His remarks echoed those of United States Secretary of State John Kerry, who last summer thanked Egypt's army for "restoring democracy" even as it was preparing to order the clearance of pro-Morsi demonstrators from a square in central Cairo. The operation went on to kill more than 900.
Blair was in Egypt this week. On Tuesday, The Guardian reported:
A key role [in the UK's Brotherhood investigation] will be played by Sir John Sawers, the current chief of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), who served as UK ambassador to Egypt between 2001-03. Sawers, who had previously served as Tony Blair's foreign affairs adviser in Downing Street, had strong contacts with the regime of the former president Hosni Mubarak.
It is absolutely consistent that the team that brought us the Iraq War and provided key support for George W. Bush's global War on Terror, would look for ways to implicate Islamists in terror-related offenses.
It is harder to explain why the UK appears to wish to do likewise. Britain has a much-lauded history of providing sanctuary for political dissidents (which is what belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood now makes you). This is an organization which has been the target of persecution since its inception more than 80 years ago, and which won successive democratic elections only to be usurped by the military. With Kerry's political cover ringing in its ears, the Egyptian authorities spent much of 2013 killing and arresting Brotherhood members in staggering numbers as it set about "restoring democracy."
Brotherhood supporters have been massacred, arrested, tortured and sentenced to die en masse. And yet, as the new leaders in Cairo (and the old ones in Riyadh) have argued, the UK appears to suspect that it is the Brotherhood who are the terrorists.