David Cameron is prepared to say that Britain’s next parliament should consider changing the law to make it easier to ban extremist groups which actively promote terrorism, after the government decided that there are no grounds under current legislation to ban the Muslim Brotherhood.
The expected move by the prime minister is being seen in some Whitehall circles as a bid to soften the blow for some Middle Eastern countries which will be disappointed that the government has not banned the Muslim Brotherhood.
Downing Street is expected to make clear in its response to an official review of the Muslim Brotherhood that the law is defined too narrowly to ban extremist groups unless there is clear evidence that they are involved in the commission, promotion or implementing of terrorist acts. The prime minister is considering whether to recommend a review of the legislation in the Tory manifesto for the general election on 7 May.
The thinking in Downing Street emerged after No 10 decided to postpone the publication of a review led by the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Sir John Jenkins, into the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood. The prime minister launched the review last year amid pressure for Britain to follow the example of Egypt and Saudi Arabia in banning the group.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia claim that the Muslim Brotherhood uses London as a centre for its activities. Mohamed Morsi, the candidate for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party for the 2012 presidential elections in Egypt, was ousted in 2013.
Downing Street said that the review – and the government response to Jenkins’ findings – has been delayed while ministers complete work on the government’s separate review into its counter-extremist strategy. This is being delayed by a row between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats over whether extremist preachers should be banned from speaking at universities. Theresa May, the home secretary, wants to ban preachers that promote extremist views. The Lib Dems say this would infringe free speech, arguing that only preachers who promote violence should be banned.
The decision to delay the publication of the Muslim Brotherhood review, taken on Monday morning on the direct orders of Cameron, caused some surprise in Whitehall and Westminster. Downing Street had made no mention of linking the Muslim Brotherhood review, which had been signed off in Whitehall last week, with the separate counter-extremism report which is the subject of a coalition row.
The publication of the review into the Muslim Brotherhood was formally notified on the order paper of the House of Commons on Monday morning. There was no mention of the counter-extremist review.
One source said the government will raise the prospect of changing the law on proscribing terrorist organisations as a way of appealing to Gulf states which want to see the banning of the Muslim Brotherhood. The source said: “This is like trying to offer a palm to the Saudis and the Emiratis, saying we haven’t been able to help you at the moment. This is sweetening what is otherwise a bitter pill for those who hoped the Brotherhood would be found to be terrorists.”
The prime minister’s spokesman said: “We want to do the two together. The counter-extremism strategy is still the subject of discussion within government.”
The spokesman said that it was right to publish the reports at the same time because there are key links between the two: “The counter-extremism strategy has been informed by some of the preliminary thinking that has been driven by Sir John Jenkins’ analytical work. So there is a relation between the two. Notwithstanding that, the analytical work from the Muslim Brotherhood review will continue to inform government thinking in the next parliament further on.”
Government sources say that Jenkins’ report will be highly relevant to the debate on what action to take against those who promote extremism but who stop short of promoting violence. The prime minister is prepared to say that the law may be too narrowly defined in this area and that the Jenkins report could inform thinking about whether to amend the law in the next parliament.
The prime minister faced embarrassment in the early part of the current parliament after his government declined to proscribe the Hizb ut-Tahrir group after Cameron had lambasted Gordon Brown in 2009 for failing to take this step.
The Arab countries which lobbied for the Jenkins review will not be surprised by the latest delay in publication but will take heart from the signal that a future Conservative government would seek to modify anti-terrorist legislation to include Islamist groups.
The United Arab Emirates, the most hawkish of the Muslim Brotherhood’s enemies, has made clear that it will not comment on the review’s findings given that it has long been clear that the organisation will not be outlawed in the UK. The UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have all already proscribed it as a terrorist organisation.
Anything the report says about the Palestinian movement Hamas, a Brotherhood organisation which controls the Gaza Strip and whose military wing is outlawed in the UK, will be closely scrutinised.
Brotherhood supporters remain angry about the review, which they saw as an endorsement of the overthrow of their democratically elected but unpopular Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, by the country’s military.
Whitehall sources made clear from the start that announcing the report in the wake of the uprisings of the Arab spring was a mistake since it created expectations that were never likely to be met. The choice of Jenkins to lead the investigation was another problem. Although he is the foreign office’s most highly regarded Arabist, his position as ambassador to Saudi Arabia created the impression that his work might create a conflict of interests. Threats of legal action by Muslim Brotherhood supporters in the UK and abroad created a further complication.
Yet to some extent the heat has gone out of the issue, largely due to the preoccupations in Britain and the region with the violent jihadis of the Islamic State in Syria, Iraq and beyond. And recent moves by the new Saudi ruler King Salman have pointed to a rapprochement between the conservative kingdom and the Brotherhood. Brotherhood leaders have had to leave Qatar, which gave them extensive support, and now mostly live in Turkey.
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