David Cameron is braced for a diplomatic row with Saudi Arabia and Egypt when the Government today publishes a long-awaited review into the Muslim Brotherhood which is set to clear it of being a terrorist organisation.
He ordered the “urgent investigation” into the Islamist movement almost a year ago, but the release of its conclusions has been repeatedly delayed amid wrangling between ministers and officials over its findings.
The Prime Minister has been accused of setting up the review under pressure from the Saudi ruling family, which was strongly opposed to the organisation under the late king, although his predecessor Salman appears to favour softening this stance.
The review, led by Sir John Jenkins, the ambassador to Saudi Arabia, into its British activities is understood to have concluded that it should not be banned as a terrorist organisation. However, it is likely to be urged to be more transparent about its links to affiliated organisations including mosques and charities.
The timing of the announcement – just 48 hours before George Osborne delivers the Coalition’s final Budget – will fuel suspicion that the government is trying to minimise adverse publicity. The report will also be heavily redacted and sparing in detail.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have banned the Muslim Brotherhood which they have labelled a terrorist organisation. The movement has support from Qatar and Turkey, where some of its leaders fled after a 2013 military coup in Egypt ousted a Brotherhood government.
The former Foreign Secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, attributed the delay to “diplomatic problems” surrounding the conclusions.
“We have a large number of friendly governments who are bitterly opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood and others who take the opposite view,” he told the Independent.
“There must have been some quite complicated considerations that have had to be taken into account. They should have known about those considerations.”
Sir John spent three months gathering evidence about the movement’s activities, passing his report to Downing Street last July, in which he was understood to have concluded there was no firm connection between the Brotherhood and terrorism.
A source close to the discussions said the Jenkins review panel were “laughing about this whole hysteria about banning the Muslim Brotherhood” last year, saying this was never on the cards and that the Saudi Government understood this.
Five months ago its British lawyers said they had learned it had been cleared of terrorist links. Last week the movement warned it was prepared to take legal action against the government if today’s report sullied its reputation as a peaceful organisation.
Steven Merley, the editor Global Muslim Brotherhood Watch, said: “Britain is the command and control centre for the Brotherhood in Europe. Nowhere else comes close – that is undeniable.”
He said: “What the Brotherhood does very well is that it makes Muslims very angry by consistently pushing the idea that the West has a war with Islam.”
Dr Lorenzo Vidino, an expert on the Brotherhood in the West who contributed to the Jenkins review, said he was unsurprised it was being released in Budget week amid signs of government anxiety about the issue.
“That would make sense – that’s been what’s been going on for the last six of seven months. There’s not exactly a desire on the part of the Government to make a big deal about it. It’s been a bit of a political hot potato,” he said.
Dr Vidino said the UK had been under pressure from Saudi Arabia to crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood while Qatar, a sponsor of the movement, has sought to water down any actions against it.
“What the UK has been doing from their [the Saudis] point of view has been excellent compared to the nothing or what the Saudis believe is support for the Brotherhood that the US has had. The UK has been more aggressive than the rest of the West, apart from perhaps Canada,” he said.
He said the Brotherhood only had a few hundreds activists in the UK, but they were “very active”. He agreed they were not a terrorist organisation and did not actively recruit people to fight for terrorist groups abroad.
Toby Cadman, a barrister employed by the Cordoba Foundation which has been linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, said: “I think this is something that’s caused huge embarrassment to the Government. They’ve been pushed into this by their strategic partners [in the Middle East].
“It’s really a damage limitation exercise now, watering it down and releasing it during Budget Week is probably there way of getting out of this.”
Downing Street confirmed that details of Sir John’s findings, and the government’s response would be published today in a written statement to the Commons, but would not discuss the contents.