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UK safe haven no more? Open in fullscreen

Abubakr al-Shamahi

UK safe haven no more?

Pro-Brotherhood supporters demonstrate outside 10 Downing Street [AFP]

Date of publication: 5 November, 2014

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Muslim Brotherhood members have found refuge in the UK in the past, and some continue to do so. But with fears over immigration, extremism and foreign pressure, the UK may not be so welcoming in the future.
The Arab Spring promised so much for the Muslim Brotherhood.
And for a while, things went well. In Egypt, Mohammad Morsi, a member of the original Egyptian branch of the organisation, was his country's first democratically elected president. In Tunisia, Ennahda, a political Islamist movement with its origins in the Muslim Brotherhood, overshadowed its more secular rivals in the vote for the Constituent Assembly, and was for a while the dominant power in the government coalition. In Libya and Yemen, Muslim Brotherhood members played prominent roles in transitional governments following the fall of autocrats who had ruled for decades.

Yet, fast forward to the present day and the outlook for the group
     We publicly expressed our concern at a military intervention in a democracy
- Alastair Burt, former UK Foreign Office minister
, founded by Egyptian schoolteacher and Imam Hassan al-Banna in 1928, does not look so good. Rather than forging the future of the region from positions of power, those leading members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood not behind bars instead now find themselves looking for a country to take them in.  
Morsi sits in an Egyptian prison cell, along with most of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's leadership. In Tunisia, Ennahdha no longer enjoy the dominant position they once did. Libya effectively has no government for the Muslim Brotherhood to lead. In Yemen, Houthi rebels defeated militia allied with the Muslim Brotherhood, leaving Brotherhood politicians defenceless against whatever the Houthis choose to do with them.
Even Qatar, known for being generally supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood, has nudged leading Brotherhood members to leave the country after intense pressure from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, for whom the brotherhood has been identified as a mortal enemy. Saudi Arabia, with ready support from the UAE, in March designated the brotherhood as a terrorist organisation.
Safe haven
That's where the UK comes in. Windsor, site of Windsor Castle, Queen Elizabeth II’s royal residence, is a picturesque town just outside London. A ten minute drive from the castle’s imposing yellow-brick walls lives Muhammad Soudan. A senior member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, he was the foreign affairs secretary for the Brotherhood's political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party. He's also been sentenced, in absentia, to 12 years in prison by an Egyptian court, and is waiting to learn the outcome of four other cases brought against him – all charges he considers baseless.
Not much over a year ago, Soudan was commuting daily from his hometown of Alexandria to Cairo, dealing with foreign diplomats and attending international conferences. Then, in July 2013, he fled his home in Alexandria hours before it was raided by Egyptian security forces following the coup against Morsi. In his Windsor living room, the only obvious reminder of Egypt is a traditional fanoos lamp hanging from the ceiling.
“Britain is known for its fair justice system, and that it is a democratic country,” said Soudan, when asked why he has chosen to come to the UK. “A democratic country gives you the foundation to be able to defend freedoms in your own country. Britain is welcoming to opposition figures … as long as you don't harm the country and [you] respect the law.”
Soudan is not the first Muslim Brotherhood member to seek refuge in the UK. Members of the organisation who have faced decades of persecution in many Arab states have been able to live freely in the United Kingdom. The Muslim Brotherhood leadership has always contained a large number of professionals, and the exiles often found jobs in the UK as doctors or engineers.
Rachid al-Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia's Ennahda, spent 22 years in London until the fall of President Zine al-Abdein Ben Ali in 2011. Kamal el-Helbawy, the former European spokesman of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, was based in London for 20 years. He also returned to his country during the tumultuous events of 2011, later splitting with the organisation that he had been a member of since he was 11. He is now a supporter of the Brotherhood's arch-enemy, Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, the former Egyptian general and now president who came to power after ousting Morsi, citing what he calls the deviation of the Muslim Brotherhood's leadership from the principles of the 2011 revolution.
Their refuge in the UK follows an historic British policy of hosting persecuted members of opposition forces from around the world, said Azzam Tamimi, a British Palestinian academic associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt's coup has seen Brotherhood dispersed [Getty]

“There has never been a specific favouring of the Muslim Brotherhood. Some members came here to claim asylum, others as students who stayed on.”
It is not surprising then that a new generation of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood exiles are drawn to the UK. And they are a visible presence. Anti-coup activities are regularly organised, both in London and elsewhere. There's even a Rabaa Pizza restaurant (spelt R4bia) in Manchester, named after Rabaa Square in Cairo where hundreds of anti-coup protesters were killed by Egyptian security forces in July 2013.
Though Soudan was imprisoned numerous times under former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, he argues that Sisi is different, more brutal. He's now working hard to expose what he regards as a new era of repression in Egypt, by working with anti-coup groups like British Egyptians for Democracy, as well as writing articles and making television appearances.
“I keep busy,” said Soudan, a qualified engineer, though he can’t work pending the outcome of his asylum application. “I write, I study, and I read about engineering and politics.”
Government Review
But the UK may not be as welcoming to the Muslim Brotherhood in the future. In a surprise move in April, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced an official government investigation into the operations of the Muslim Brotherhood. The man tasked with writing the report, Sir John Jenkins, is also the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia. This has not gone unnoticed by observers, who suspect that pressure from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates is being brought to bear on the UK government to stop the Muslim Brotherhood from using the UK as a base.
Both oil-rich Gulf countries are major investors in the UK and important customers for Britain’s arms industry.  
Since then, Tamimi said, not many new Muslim Brotherhood exiles have arrived in the UK.
“The UAE-Saudi squeeze on the Muslim Brotherhood is an attempt to cause problems for the movement internationally,” Tamimi said.
But the UK also has its own concerns about hosting the Muslim Brotherhood, even if the UAE-Saudi link is a tempting one for Brotherhood members to seize upon.
“Abu Dhabi certainly has a number of rather emphatic concerns vis-a-vis the Brotherhood – but so do a number of people within government and the Conservative Party, which is probably far more important,” says Dr H.A. Hellyer, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and the Brookings Institution in Washington DC.
“The question is where the review will come down… it's clear there is a consensus that [the Brotherhood] is neither a pluralistic, democratic, progressive organisation, nor is it a terrorist group.”
Alistair Burt, a British MP and the Foreign Office Minister responsible for the Middle East during the period of Morsi’s government and Sisi’s coup, says that the government had no view on the Muslim Brotherhood as a movement, but that the situation in Egypt had been deteriorating in the months before the coup.
“We … recognised the elected President Morsi's government, and had worked in an appropriate fashion with it,” Burt, who stepped down from his ministerial position in October 2013, told al-Araby al-Jadeed.
“It made mistakes,” Burt said about Morsi’s government, suggesting those were contributing factors for the subsequent coup. “We publicly expressed our concern at a military intervention in a democracy, but always understood that there was considerable popular support for such intervention.”
The UK's current political climate, with an intense focus on immigration and suspicion of Islamist groups, means that Britain is likely to stop being the attractive proposition for Muslim Brotherhood exiles it once was. Turkey, with the Muslim Brotherhood friendly Recep Erdogan in power is now a more welcoming destination.
Nevertheless, the group has a long history in the UK. Older exiles have settled, obtained citizenship, and some even chose to remain in the UK during the Brotherhood's brief period in power in Egypt. That network of supporters is well established and will continue to exist for the foreseeable future at least. Brotherhood members like Soudan, fleeing opponents at home, will still find friends in London. 

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