Britain Plans to Reach Out to Muslim Brotherhood

The British government is planning to build diplomatic ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group banned by the Egyptian government. A government memo, leaked to the press Thursday, recommends increased engagement with the group, a proposal that British's foreign secretary Jack Straw has accepted.

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Hamas' surprise victory along with electoral successes elsewhere of militant Islamist groups poses a dilemma for governments in the West. In Britain, it appears to be prompting at least a rethinking of foreign policy towards the Middle East. A foreign office memo leaked and published yesterday in Britains New Statesman magazine proposes more engagement with what it calls political Islam, specifically Egypt's banned Muslim Brotherhood.

NPR's Rob Gifford joins us now from London to talk about the new policy recommendation. And Rob, what exactly does this memo say?

ROB GIFFORD, reporting:

Well the memo is from a senior member of the Foreign Offices' Israel, Arab, and North Africa Working Group. And it is part of the broader strategy within the British foreign office called Engaging With The Islamic World. And this person is suggesting to other various senior members within the British government that they should, indeed, engage with political Islam and engage specifically with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and also recommending that the U.S. and EU countries do the same. There has been an MI6 study within the British government that says that there is no direct violence that is caused by the Muslim Brotherhood, although some donations are probably finding their way towards Hamas and other people, and that really, engagement is the way forwards with these people and by engaging, the British government may be able to change or affect the direction that the movement takes.

MONTAGNE: What is the argument behind this possible change in policy?

GIFFORD: Well, it's part of the ongoing dilemma really, which is happening in the United States as well, and throughout the European Union, of what to do when you've encouraged democracy in the middle east. And we've seen it, of course, with the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections several weeks ago. What do you do when you encourage it, and then the Islamist groups take power. And this particular memo, is saying that reall, the credibility of the British government is at stake. That once you've encouraged democracy, you can't then, just ignore people who have taken part in that democracy. And the Muslim Brotherhood have just participated recent Egyptian elections and won 88 seats-which is more than they ever have done before. They were not allowed to run as the Muslim Brotherhood, it should be said, they had to run as independents. But that is still and important move in the Egyptian political landscape.

MONTAGNE: Remind us Rob, exactly who is the Muslim Brotherhood.

GIFFORD: Well, it has its roots back in the 1920s. It was founded in 1928 and its aim is to implement Sharia law, but it says 'through democratic means.' It's very, very influential, as we've just been hearing, on Hamas, on other Islamic groups around the region. One important point and one thing that has really affected how people see the Muslim Brotherhood, of course, is that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number two in al-Qaeda to Osama bin Laden, used to be a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood and so it's very much seen as this extremist group and in many ways, it's clear it has links with extremist groups around the region.

But as Linda Gradstein was just saying from the Middle East just then, it also does support the poor; it has a lot of grassroots support among ordinary Egyptians and helps the poor and helps with education and all these other areas as well.

MONTAGNE: Well, has Tony Blair's government decided to move this way and just, quickly, would it be ironic, given that the Blair government has pushed to outlaw speech glorifying terrorism and there is that history here?

GIFFORD: Well, there is obviously this whole attention here in this whole debate. It clearly looks as though the British government is moving that way, although the fact that this memo was leaked suggests that there are some people within the British government who are not happy with going in this direction. One of the memos that was leaked at the same time to the new statesman is a memo from the British ambassador in Cairo basically saying that the government -- advising the government not to do this and this will, as he put it scare the horses in the Egyptian government, and he pours scorn on the idea that you can affect the direction of the Muslim Brotherhood by engaging it.

MONTAGNE: Rob, thanks very much.

GIFFORD: Thank you very much, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Rob Gifford speaking to us from London.

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