This is my latest column for the International New York Times is on David Cameron’s inquiry into the Muslim Brotherhood. The full version I will publish on Pandaemonium next month.
Imagine that an elected president is ousted by the military. That the president’s party is declared a ‘terrorist’ organization. That dozens of protesters are shot in the streets, thousands of people imprisoned and hundreds sentenced to death.
How should a liberal democracy respond? Presumably, by condemning the coup, denouncing the violence and defending the rights of the political opposition. But not, it seems, if you are the British government.
All the events I describe have happened in Egypt. The democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, was overthrown by the army last July. The Muslim Brotherhood, of which he was a leader, was declared a terrorist group; protesters were killed by security forces, and at least 16,000 people have been jailed; last month, 529 Egyptians were sentenced to death for the alleged killing of a policeman.
And Britain’s latest response? Prime Minister David Cameron has announced an investigation into the Muslim Brotherhood in Britain, to understand ‘what its beliefs are in terms of the path of extremism and violent extremism, what its connections are with other groups’. In his announcement, Mr. Cameron raised the spectre of the brutal murder last year of a British soldier, Lee Rigby, hacked to death by two Islamists on a London Street.
The link was misleading and disingenuous. There is no evidence to suggest that the Muslim Brotherhood was involved in this or any similar terrorist attack in Britain. The movement is, however, loathed and feared by Britain’s most important autocratic friends in the Middle East — notably, the rulers of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Mr. Cameron’s investigation has less to do with protecting the nation from terrorism than with bolstering Britain’s foreign policy interests.
The Muslim Brotherhood is a reactionary movement with deeply illiberal views, which seeks to establish an Islamic caliphate under Shariah rule. In Egypt and elsewhere, the Brotherhood has been involved in violent confrontation with the authorities, but it is not a terrorist organization in the mould of Al Qaeda. Tellingly, the only countries that consider the Brotherhood as such are Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Syria and Russia.
The threat posed by the Muslim Brotherhood is largely to the stability of autocratic regimes in the Middle East. For more than half a century, Egypt’s secular dictators, from Gamal Abdel Nasser to Hosni Mubarak, savagely repressed the organization, fearing its appeal to the masses — a fear realized when, in June 2012, Mr. Morsi won the nation’s first democratic presidential elections with more than half of the popular vote.
Religious autocrats are equally fearful. In the 1950s and ’60s, Saudi Arabia provided shelter for Brotherhood activists driven out of Egypt. Increasingly, however, the Saud family has seen the Brotherhood’s activist Islam and advocacy of political reform as threats to its absolute monarchy.
The Arab Spring strengthened these anxieties. The Brotherhood did not initiate the uprisings but took advantage of the political turmoil. Mr. Morsi’s presidential triumph in Egypt made the Saudi regime fear that it might be challenged by newly emboldened Islamists at home. So Riyadh’s hard-line religious rulers supported a secular military coup against an Islamist president in Cairo and pledged $12 billion in aid. And in March, Saudi Arabia joined Egypt in declaring the Brotherhood a ‘terrorist organization’.
Western foreign policy, too, has been shaped by fear of instability and unrest. Britain and America are often the loudest voices proclaiming the virtues of democracy. In practice, they tend to take an instrumental view of its applicability. Autocrats who work in the West’s interests are generally preferred to democrats who challenge them.
Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the response to the Arab Spring. Where pro-democratic protests have challenged governments that Western powers oppose, as in Libya or Syria, the West has been keen to support those movements. But where they have risen against governments deemed useful to the West, the response has been equivocal.
Continue reading in the International New York Times
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