Whitehall report into Muslim Brotherhood delayed by wrangling

The publication of a UK government report into the Muslim Brotherhood has been delayed as ministers and officials wrangle over its findings, the Financial Times has learnt.

David Cameron asked Sir John Jenkins, Britain’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, to conduct an investigation into whether the Egyptian political group should be classified as a terrorist organisation. The prime minister did so after coming under heavy pressure from allies in the Gulf such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which has banned the organisation.

Whitehall officials have told the FT the report has found the group should not be labelled a terrorist organisation, and in fact has found little evidence that its members are involved in terrorist activities. But ministers are so concerned about the reaction from Britain’s Middle East allies that they have stalled publication for several weeks, according to two people with knowledge of the report.

One person said: “Sir John will say that the Brotherhood is not a terrorist organisation. The Saudis and Emiratis will then be very upset with us.”

According to one senior person in the Foreign Office, the Abu Dhabi royal family, the al-Nahyan, have been particularly vociferous about the dangers posed by the Brotherhood. The person said: “They complain that their countrymen do not feel safe in London with Brotherhood people walking around. The pressure has been quite sharp.”

Mr Cameron spoke to Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, on Thursday. According to an official record of the meeting sent to journalists by Number 10, the two spoke about Iraq and Gaza, but not Sir John’s report.

Since the government commissioned the report on the Brotherhood, the UK and its western allies have grown increasingly concerned about financial support for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as Isis, which has over-run swaths of north and central Iraq from its base in eastern Syria, helped by reported flows of money from private donors in the Gulf.

The Brotherhood, which dates back to 1928, came to power in Egypt’s election in 2012 before being ousted by a military coup last year. Since losing power, Cairo’s military-backed interim government has designated it a terror organisation, jailing its leaders and blaming it for a number of attacks – including the murder in February of three tourists on a bus in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula. The Brotherhood has denied responsibility. Earlier this year a court in Cairo sentenced 529 Brotherhood members to death in a significant escalation of its crackdown.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two of Britain’s closest diplomatic and commercial allies in the Middle East, have embarked on their own operations against the Brotherhood. The Saudis have followed the Egyptian example of banning it altogether.

The Brotherhood has been operating in the UK since 1995. Fears that it could be engaged in extremist activities in the country were enough to trigger Mr Cameron’s demand in April for an investigation, but some in the coalition government believe that was an overreaction which could backfire. One senior government figure warned at the time: “It risks turning supporters of a moderate, non-violent organisation that campaigns for democracy into radicals.”

According to Whitehall sources, Sir John has found that the group does not pose a significant terror threat in the UK. His findings were due to be published by the end of last month, but government officials indicated that ministers were still finalising how they would present the conclusions.

Number 10 declined to comment.

Financial Times, 17 August 2014

Update:  See also Memphis Barker, “Why can’t our Government spot the difference between Isis and the Muslim Brotherhood?”, Independent, 18 August 2014