Over the past decades, The UK has been accused of playing an influential role in formulating the methodology of political Islam in the Arab world. Researchers in this field are trying to explore this relationship and point to evidence of the depth of this influence and its roots extending back to the period before the exit of the United Kingdom from the Arab region and the greater Middle East. A series of sober intelligence and research reports reveal London's support for political Islam movements of various names and activities, as a political tool to support their interests in the face of a decline in their political influence abroad.
What makes me put this debate back on the table is what happened in Tunisia recently after popular protests in several Tunisian cities, when Tunisian President Kais Saied announced the suspension of Parliament and the lifting of immunity of its members, and the dismissal of Prime Minister Hichem Al-Mechichi from his post, based on Article 80 of the Tunisian constitution, which stipulates that the President of the Republic, in a state of imminent danger threatening the integrity of the country and the country’s security and independence, is entitled to take the measures necessitated by this exceptional situation.
The activation of Article 80 and the accompanying doubts about any future role of Ennahda Movement raise a wide debate about its future and more broadly the future of British policy towards the Arab region, given the link between its foreign policy and the movements of political Islam as its main pillar. This will be discussed first, and then the consequences of the fall of the movement's last strongholds in Tunisia will be commented on.
The UK has long viewed political Islam as an alternative to radical Islam. After the 9/11 attacks, it sought to empower political Islam in British society in the hope of countering Salafi-Jihadist ideology, which had been based in London since the 1990s and included a number of Salafi-Jihadist leaders and theorists such as Abu Musab al-Suri and Abu Qatada al-Filistini to the extent that it was called "Londonstan". Paradoxically, political Islam groups have partnered with The UK in their approach to a more pragmatic and peaceful British Muslim society.
In this context, Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of the Ennahda Movement, believes in an interview with the London-based newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat in 2016 that his party, the Moroccan “Justice and Development Party” and its Turkish counterpart, are the real alternative to the terrorist organizations ISIS, Al-Qaeda and other armed groups that use terrorism under a religious cover.
The UK's adoption of this equation seems to have replaced the influence and leadership of Salafi-Jihadism with their political Islam counterparts. According to a 2006 Telegraph report, The UK organized a number of conferences attended by Brotherhood leaders from various Arab regions, such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi, with the aim of integrating Islamists into the values of British society. However, these or other conferences are likely to be relevant to broader enabling policies, but they are still somewhat unannounced. A friend told me about his participation in a political private meeting in the British countryside in 2019 in which they discussed a range of topics, the most important of which are: the violence of exclusion suffered by young people, the lack of trust between young people and governments, the distance of political leadership from young people, and the absence of youth representation in political life in some countries, including Arab. The meeting was interested in developing the political skills of young people in line with global changes.
“Britain should rather direct the funds allocated to support political Islam projects towards the cognitive development of the peoples of the Arab region.”
Yes, it is a wonderful collection of important topics that I always call in my articles, but after three days of discussions they all dissipated. The broad and elitist youth presence of family members of political Islam groups from various Arab countries was remarkable, especially as most of them ran discussions and groups, reviewed their experience in the so-called "Arab Spring", and also recounted the journey of political empowerment of these youth leaders more than 20 years ago adopted by British civil society institutions, which means that the preparation and follow-up process began early to enable a new generation of political Islam groups to take advantage of any instability in the Arab region.
Beyond that, there are those who consider Britain's relationship with Islamist groups to be linked to its geopolitical and strategic interests, including Mark Curtis, a British journalist and historian who reviewed in his book Secret Affairs: Britain's Collusion with Radical Islam, published in 2010, a series of government documents from 2004 to 2006 that discussed the need for Britain to work with Islamist opposition forces, chiefly the Muslim Brotherhood.
One of the documents is a leaked memo from the Interior and Foreign Ministries on the subject of working with the Muslim community in The UK, which said that "the reformist movement can be returned to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Group and it adheres to the correctness of religion, but it is pragmatic." The book echoes the British policy to Angus McKee, one of the officials in charge of British foreign policy management in the Middle East and North Africa, who saw the willingness of these groups to work with the West along with their organizational and structural advantage that the rest of the opposition in the Arab world lacks.
“There are those who consider that Britain's relationship with Islamic groups is linked to geopolitical and strategic interests.”
Yet, this relationship does not seem limited to opening channels with the forces of political Islam as a representative of the opposition in the Arab world. After the Muslim Brotherhood won Egypt’s presidential election, a diplomat expressed the British government's move to open direct political channels of communication with the Muslim Brotherhood.
This relationship is not over and the British government has not taken a hostile or conservative stance on the Brotherhood after the fall of their rule in 2013, and we witnessed the rise of ISIS, whose attacks affected Britain itself. After three years of studying the Egyptian government request to consider the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist movement under the umbrella of several terrorist groups, the British government eventually submitted a "confidential report" concluding that there was no evidence of the Muslim Brotherhood's involvement in terrorist acts, let alone the preparation of a report by the Foreign Affairs Committee of the British Parliament following a government version recommending the latter's support for political Islam movements in the Arab world, specifically in terms of their political participation and role in building modern democracies.
These and other examples illustrate The UK's vision of what is happening today in Tunisia after the executive decisions of Tunisian President Kais Saied. First and foremost, these decisions affect Ennahda and its president Rached Ghannouchi, who, after 21 years in London (1989-2011), was able to lead the Tunisian political scene following the success of the Tunisian revolution in 2011, after increasing international pressure. The regional movements of political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood took a bold step during the 10th Conference of the Tunisian Ennahda Movement in May 2016, namely, the announcement of the departure from political Islam to "democratic Islam", a new approach that adopts the separation of political practice and religious advocacy, and the transformation of the movement into a civil democratic party.
Coming out of the tunnel
There are those who believe that Ghannouchi’s move is but a temporary tactic to avoid pressures on political Islam and keep pace with the global trend, and then return to the old literature. While others see it as compliance with the Turkish experience in dealing with secular societies, one of which is Tunisian society, and work to gradually Islamize it within cumulative steps. There is another belief that sees this step as the product of the development of the relationship between the movement and an ancient intelligence apparatus, keen to perpetuate Ennahda in its new form and its old core.
Finally, the recent fall of Ennahda in Tunisia could be seen as a failure of The UK's project to empower political Islam groups, which, though accepted in London, did not receive the same by Arab peoples fed up with the experience of Islamist rule in Tunisia, and before that their failed experience of governing Egypt after the June 30 popular demonstrations. There is no room to recount and analyze the mistakes made by Ennahda, which are well known to all, as opposed to highlighting the principle of managing contradictions in British foreign policy on the one hand, and the excessive pragmatism adopted by political Islam movements at the expense of the common good on the other, using religion as a means of manipulating societies and engaging in the corridors of domestic and foreign policy.
Even though The UK has not yet announced its official position on what is happening in Tunisia, the Guardian has used the term "coup" in its talk about the Tunisian situation.
As a result, the position the UK will take today after the failure of its political Islam-based project will determine the future positions of the West in general, led by the United States, which seems to have learned from its lessons in the Egyptian situation, by not considering what is happening in Tunisia a coup according to the White House statement, which largely complies with the demands of Tunisian society, which rose up in defense of state values and protecting them from the disruption of fundamentalists.
Finally, instead of squandering the money it raised from taxes on Britons and spending it on supporting political Islam projects, the UK was supposed to think carefully about how to channel these funds towards cognitive development, under which Great Britain teaches the peoples of the Arab region the greatness of the philosophy of John Locke, Adam Smith and Bertrand Russell. Doing so, it can be the closest to the Arabs, building their relations with the countries of the region through bridges of knowledge, and, instead of supporting political Islam, which is on the verge of extinction in the Arab region, having its enlightening mission focused on economic partnership, friendship, peace and the empowerment of the Arab peoples, in order to become an active partner in the fight against terrorism, which is as dangerous to the peoples of the East as it is to the European countries.