Will the UK's support for violent resistance extend to the Brotherhood's peaceful struggle?
In December 2013 Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood was declared a terrorist organisation by what was then the interim, military-backed government. The new decree criminalised the group's activities and promised to punish those suspected of financing or promoting it. As it turned out, punishment was putting it mildly: between July 2013 and May 2014 at least 41,000 people have been detained; some 1,000 protesters were killed in a single day in the Rabaa massacre and hundreds sentenced to death, including the democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi, for involvement in terrorist activities, spreading chaos, plotting attacks on police stations and churches, attempted murder, possession of weapons, the destruction of public property and receiving military training in Gaza.
The upper echelons of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt deny these charges and maintain their commitment to non-violence using the slogan: "Our peacefulness is stronger than bullets." In recent weeks, though, some members have openly questioned how useful non-violent protests are; advocating that armed resistance would be more effective in fighting an increasingly repressive regime. Despite this, the group stands by its original declaration: "Those who belong to the Muslim Brotherhood must adopt its peaceful approach and path of non-violent action; but if they call for a different line of action or chart for themselves an approach different from the group's announced approach, they no longer belong in the Brotherhood, and the group no longer accepts them, no matter what they do or say."
This weekend the Brotherhood's Spiritual Guide Mohamed Badie confirmed from his prison cell that the movement rejects the use of force: "The Brotherhood will continue on this programme, our peaceful and innovative revolution, with all the noble people of the country until it achieves its objectives of freedom, social justice and human dignity," he said.
Statements seeking to make the Brotherhood's position about their commitment to non-violent resistance clear have largely fallen on deaf ears. Shortly after Morsi's ouster from power, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait prepared a $12 billion aid package for Egypt which was delivered with a promise to stand with their Egyptian brothers against terrorism and extremism. In an attempt to please the Saudis, who were desperate to discredit the organisation not just in the region but also in the West, the UK government ordered an urgent investigation into the Muslim Brotherhood and their violent activities in the UK. Britain enjoys a booming arms trade with the Kingdom; under the coalition government £3.8 billion of arms export licences were approved.
Embarrassingly though, the report concluded that there was no connection between the Muslim Brotherhood and violence or terrorism, which ultimately put Britain in a rather awkward situation vis a vis their Gulf allies. But the phrase "mud sticks" comes to mind when considering what the year-long inquiry did for the organisation's already unfavourable reputation. Still, the question remains: if a faction within the Brotherhood resorts to violence, why are they treated so differently to other armed groups in the region?
A closer look at the UK's response to anti-government movements in Arab Spring countries outside of Egypt points towards double dealing, or protection of British interests. Back in 2011 a band of army deserters under the name "Free Syrian Army" (FSA) appeared and quickly made headlines, selling themselves as an armed opposition group dedicated to fighting Bashar Al-Assad's murderous regime. They were dubbed the "Syrian liberators" even though their call to arms was never a secret; as senior defector Colonel Riad Al-As'aad said: "Without a war, he will not fall. Whoever leads with force cannot be removed except by force." But this didn't stop the UK government sending communications equipment to the FSA including laptops with satellite connections, mobile telephones and medical kits as a way of indirectly supporting their activities.
Likewise, in July 2011, the British government recognised the Libyan rebel council as the "sole governmental authority" and later deployed Special Forces on the ground to help the (armed) rebels topple Muammar Gaddafi. Support for armed groups is not just restricted to those operating in the Arab Spring; the UK's double standards can also be seen in its stance on Ukraine where Britain issued support for pro-democracy demonstrators - despite reports that Molotov cocktails, axes and knives were used - then applauded the downfall of President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014.
Amongst other things, Assad continued his father's legacy of taking a strong position against Israel and was outspoken over the US-led invasion of Iraq. Gaddafi used money from an oil-rich Libya to turn its back on western financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The protests in Kiev began when Yanukovych rejected closer economic ties with the European Union in favour of a $15 billion investment from Russia. In other words, each was a thorn in the side of the West. Meanwhile, current Egyptian President Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi promised to maintain peace with Israel, uphold British investments in the country and keep Saudi Arabia happy.
Whilst revolutionaries in Syria, Libya and Ukraine are genuinely seeking the removal of autocratic rulers, it is clear that the UK government's involvement is not guided by the principles of justice and freedom, rather by economic and regional interests. Ironically, whilst accusing the Muslim Brotherhood of violence, and thus discrediting them, Britain has drawn widespread criticism for continuing to sell arms to the current government in Egypt, despite the human rights atrocities they have committed; weapons which are likely being used against peaceful and non-violent resistance to their rule. The fact that its own thorough investigation has vindicated the Brotherhood of any involvement either in terrorism or violence is a warning that Britain should revisit its position on the Brotherhood and its foreign policy in the region at large. Perhaps it will shift, as it did with the ANC of South Africa, who was committed to violent resistance.
Disdain for the Muslim Brotherhood and support for the Free Syrian Army, the Libyan rebels and the Ukrainian protestors is a phenomenon that was perpetuated by the mainstream media. Perhaps part of the problem lies in the PR methods employed by each group; sadly such a ferocious crackdown on the Brotherhood means any nuanced conversation about the movement is impossible. Broadly speaking one would expect, at the very least, left-wing circles to defend the repressed group, but contempt for the Brotherhood is far-reaching. This is reflected in conversations about Egypt where observers are more likely to highlight the Brotherhood's mistakes during their short time in office than they are to recognise just how brutal the current regime is. How did young men with guns slung across their backs, posing under banners that read "Free Syrian Army", become more acceptable to the British public than the thousands of men and women camping outside Egypt's mosques calling for the reinstatement of their democratically elected leader?
Published in Middle East Monitor