Friday, June 24 2016

Britain should be sensitive to scepticism of role in Middle East, says report

The Foreign Affairs Committee has published a report looking at British foreign policy and the Arab Spring. The report looks at Britain’s response to the Arab Spring, relations with key states as well as looking at support for democratic reform in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

Overall, the report sees the Arab Spring as both “the greatest challenge and the greatest opportunity to date for this Government’s foreign policy.” The report also notes the scepticism with which British support for democracy and human rights is received in the region today in light of its past and present relationships with authoritarian regimes.

Some of the report’s findings are summarised below:

Responses to the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya

The report states that the government was right to “focus on human rights protection and to call for political reform” rather than calling for leaders to step down in Tunisia and Egypt. It comments on the ‘leadership’ demonstrated by the UK at the UN in relation to the uprising in Libya.

UK involvement in MENA region and future approach

Critically, the report acknowledges that “the UK’s policy of engaging with autocratic powers in the MENA region while remaining relatively quiet in public on human rights and political reform has linked us in the eyes of many people with those deposed and discredited governments.” It states that more consistent calls for respect for human rights and democratic reform might have helped the situation in MENA states “as well as having a positive impact on the public perception of the UK in the region today.”

Arms sales are noted as an area of concern which has affected the public perception of Britain in the region. Prime Minister David Cameron’s engagement in a 'defence tour' on a visit to Egypt in February 2011 following the fall of Hosni Mubarak, is noted as a ‘mistake’ in a region “undergoing uprisings in which some authoritarian regimes had used force against their own people.”

In light of such legacies, it is acknowledged that “The Government must be sensitive to the scepticism with which British statements on human rights and freedom are met in the region.”

Support for democratic transition

The committee welcomes the Arab Partnership programme- a joint FCO/DFID initiative with a £110 million budget over four years, “as a tool to promote political and economic reform in the region”. It also emphasises the importance of the ‘Deauville Partners’- members of the G8, in keeping to promises on political and economic support in the region.

Relationships with the MENA region

The report notes that the government has been right to “develop greater contact with Islamist parties in the region, which have proved successful at elections. It should work to deepen its engagement with Islamist parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, at this early stage in order to demonstrate the assistance and support available to those who respect human rights and democratic reforms.”

The committee concludes that the UK should “continue to pursue stronger ties with Tunisia”. On Egypt, it advocates support and assistance to the new President, Mohammed Morsi, as well as working with the Muslim Brotherhood to support those who respect democratic reform and human rights. It regrets that such action was not taken earlier, particularly the missed opportunity of Cameron’s visit to Egypt in February 2011. It acknowledges scepticism at the UKs intentions and calls for stronger diplomatic efforts to improve the British image in Egypt.

On Libya, there is specific mention of allegations of British complicity in the torture of Libyan nationals. It comments that “We would be deeply disturbed if assurances given over many years, including assurances given by Ministers to this Committee’s predecessors, that the UK had not been involved in the rendition of any individuals are proved to be inaccurate.” The report also expresses regret for the suffering and loss of life in Syria and commends the Government’s efforts to aid a solution to the crisis there.

The report emphasises the need to apply all of these lessons “to its relations with other Arab and Gulf states, and more widely, whose governments as yet show no sign of reforming, or that are actively resisting reform. In this regard, the greatest challenges of the Arab Spring may still lie ahead.”

The report makes some important observations on several key aspects of Britain’s relationship with the MENA region. Notable is the acceptance of an air of scepticism around British intentions (and western intentions more broadly) in the region, giiven the lack of consistency in British involvement with the region. Such tension and scepticism has been reflected in studies, such as that carried out by the Pew Research Center last year, which found that western countries are viewed unfavourably in many Muslim-majority nations. Military support to dictatorial regimes has contributed significantly to this negative perception. However as a recent report by the Joint Committee on Arms Export Controls  illustrated, the Arab Spring has led to a change in government arms policy, with a more cautious approach now being taken to arms sales. Many may nevertheless consider this too late given the likelihood that Britain and other countries were aware of the misuse of military support by some states. Implicit support for torture, as has been alleged by some Libyan nationals, is also a realm of criticism whereby Britain has not been seen to be equitable in its approach to human rights.

The other major change to note is the government’s engagement with ‘Islamist’ regimes. Needless to say, for too long Britain and other western countries have feared any support of a role for the Islamic faith in the public sphere. The government appears to finally be appreciating the diversity in which such support for Islam’s role in the public sphere can manifest itself, and that democracy, human rights and Islam can work together hand in hand.

The full report can be downloaded here.

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