Abdellatif el-Menawy is Editor-in-Chief of Al Masry Al Youm, is a former Head of News for Egyptian State Television, and is the author of Tahrir: the last 18 days of Mubarak.
In early 1999, I was a guest on one of Al Jazeera’s programs in its London studio. The other guest was Mustafa Kemal Mustafa, nicknamed Sheikh Abu Hamza al-Masri, the notorious terrorist currently serving a life sentence in America. (Leaders of radical Islamist groups, usually called jihadists, can rarely be found in Arabic countries. They almost universally prefer the safe havens afforded by Western prosperity.)
Abu Hamza stared at me with his right eye (he had lost his left eye and both hands in a mine explosion while in Afghanistan) and said: “The West for us, the Islamists, is a toilet, where we dispose of the waste and leave.” I expected that this would generate outrage from the channel’s European viewers, especially since such language was repeated several times throughout the course of the programme. To me, this was a perfect demonstration of the contempt with which Islamists hold modernity. But there was no reaction – and no response.
Britain had at that time turned away its gaze from warnings about harbouring radical Islamists, and many European countries followed suit. Abu Hamza, who from 1997 was the well-known sheikh of a popular mosque in North London, began by spewing hatred from the pulpit and later moved to the street. Britain refused to extradite him to Yemen for his involvement in terrorist bombings against Western interests there. The Government only realized the danger in 2004, when he was sentenced to seven years. Then began the long dialogue that led to his deportation to America in 2012.
For all of democracy’s advantages, it can have surprising consequences for justice. I recall an interview with Hosni Mubarak, less than two weeks after the events of 9/11. When Le Figaro asked the former Egyptian president about the right to asylum, he said: “The right of asylum is guaranteed by democratic principles, but it is unacceptable that a democratic state grants political asylum to criminals. The murderer has no claim to human rights. If someone commits a crime in France, don’t think he will be able to go to Egypt. I will hand him over to France immediately.” It took eight years for Britain to extradite Abu Hamza to its closest ally – a man who had already been convicted for terrorism-related offences.
So I am pleased to see that Britain is marking a new course on extremist groups. Following Alistair Burt’s visit to Egypt last month, I have become convinced that the UK, and some other European countries, have finally realized the danger they were in, and thus begun to take the necessary measures to help protect their borders and societies.
The Foreign Office Minister’s remarks, which were not widely reported in this country, were very striking and important because they represented a significant adjustment of the British approach to combatting terrorism: “In Britain now, anyone in any organisation that incites hate or tolerates, supports, or justifies any form of terrorism, is breaking the law and will be prosecuted and punished,” Burt said. “This message is also addressed to the Muslim Brotherhood.”
It was hardly an impromptu or unofficial expression of opinion: he repeated the same comments in meetings with Egyptian officials and in a leading national newspaper, Al-Ahram. It was the first time that I have seen explicit acknowledgement of and emphasis on the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in supporting terrorist groups and terrorist acts around the world. Burt himself, for example, had previously expressed his personal frustration to me with the revolution against Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader, in 2013. But, gradually, the veil has lifted, and the Brotherhood has been exposed for what it is: not a democratic movement that leverages Islam to build support, but a radical Islamist group that exploits democracy to achieve power.
In his 2015 report on the Muslim Brotherhood, commissioned by David Cameron, Sir John Jenkins portrayed the Muslim Brotherhood as a nefarious and corrupting influence that was fully at odds with Western values. But it stopped short of linking the group to terrorism, and there were many of us that criticized the report for this. However, to his credit, the former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia renewed his criticism of the Brotherhood last month, by making the compelling historical observation that the more the West deals with the organisation, the closer to extremism it is encouraged to move. In the moments when we have ignored them, they have moderated to win back international support.
Burt said in his meetings in Cairo that the Muslim Brotherhood uses the ambiguity around its intentions to conceal its extremist agenda. “These evasive tactics, used by the organisation and observed in the 2015 report, still continue in 2017.. .the time has come for anyone who defends the Muslim Brotherhood – in London or Cairo – to put an end to this ambiguity,” he said.
Egyptians understand, and accept that Britain has in the past wavered on the Brotherhood, but it is now clear that the group is the driving force behind much of the extremism and instability in the region and the West. It is partly true that the Brotherhood does not carry out terrorist attacks in its name, but it leads the horses to water on an industrial scale, knowingly and happily radicalising young people in Egypt and the UK. Now Egyptians only hope that that Britain finishes the job, designates the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group, and sanctions those countries that finance and support it, principally Qatar.