UK Denies Talks With Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood

Britain denied on Friday reports that its diplomats had been told to open contacts with Egypt’s Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement.

A Foreign Office spokesman said the only direct contact his government had was with independent parliament members, without denying that these could include Brotherhood sympathizers.

The New Statesman magazine on Thursday published what it said were a series of official documents outlining a policy of enhancing contacts with the outlawed movement.

“We are never going to comment on a leaked document,” the spokesman said. “But we do not talk directly to the Muslim Brotherhood.”

A memo dated Jan 17, 2006 to Middle East Minister Kim Howells marked “restricted” proposes raising “the frequency of working-level contacts with Muslim Brotherhood parliamentarians, particularly those who are members of parliamentary committees”.

It also suggests encouraging other countries to follow suit.

The Brotherhood could not run as a party during Egypt’s parliamentary elections last year, but its candidates, who ran as independents, won 88 seats, up from 15 in 2000.

“In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood didn’t stand as a political party, but they did play a part in the elections,” the British Foreign Office spokesman said.

“There was an increase in the independent MPs during the parliamentary elections and from our point of view we have always had contacts with members of the Egyptian People’s Assembly and of course will continue to do so,” he added.

The Brotherhood, founded in 1928, is Egypt’s largest opposition group and has been a well of inspiration for other Islamist groups, including the militant Palestinian Hamas group. The Egyptian authorities have viewed the Brotherhood as a front for violent Islamist groups and discourages foreign governments from having contacts with it.

The Brotherhood says it opposes violence and seeks to bring about its vision of an Islamic society by peaceful means.

Britain’s apparent shift towards engagement with the movement has critics within its own diplomatic service.

A memo from ambassador to Egypt Derek Plumbly warned that talking to Islamists had to be done in the appropriate context.

“I detect a tendency for us to be drawn towards engagement for its own sake, to confuse ’engaging with the Islamic world’ with ’engaging with Islamism,” he wrote in a memo dated June 23, 2005 and published by the New Statesman.

“Pressing for legalisation of the Brothers as a political party, or dealing with them ourselves directly … will panic the horses.

“If the issue is one of knowing more about bodies like the Muslim Brothers, there are other ways of doing so besides group engagement,” he said.