David Cameron is failing to PR himself in the Middle East. Maybe he should start looking closer to home

Latest blunders include "delayed" reports, confused allegiances and invited dignitaries who never arrive. It seems Cameron isn't quite cut out for the region

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The Independent Online

PR Dave is my favourite British prime minister – because you can never be sure of his next blunder in the Middle East. Last year, you may recall, he demanded a report on the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood by our former ambassador in Saudi Arabia, Sir John Jenkins, in the happy expectation that it would condemn the group as a bunch of terrorists. It was important, he said then, “that we understand... what its beliefs are in terms of the path of extremism and violent extremism...”

PR Dave knew very well, of course, that Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi – victor of Egypt’s first democratic election – had been overthrown in 2013 in an army coup led by Field Marshal Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, which provoked a bloodbath at the hands of al-Sisi’s “security” forces. 

PR Dave also knew very well that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states loathed the Brotherhood, now designated an “illegal terrorist organisation” in Egypt, and that Sir John’s report on the iniquities of this foul organisation would curry favour with the Wahhabist regime in Riyadh – whose late king’s death, we all remember, prompted Dave, in mourning mode, to fly the British flag at half mast. 

But the “whoops” factor intervened. Sir John’s report, which Dave described as “an important piece of work”, did not after all label the almost 87-year-old Brotherhood – the most influential pan-Islamic group in the world – a “terrorist” organisation.

So what does a good public relations man do when his minions don’t produce what he demanded? In March, he simply “postponed” the report indefinitely. In other words, for ever.

Then he decided to invite al-Sisi, now the elected president, to London. Yes, just two months ago, right on cue, Dave asked the field marshal to pop over to Downing Street for a chat, exactly one day after ex-president Morsi had been condemned to death by an Egyptian court.

It was important, Dave’s factotum announced, that “we engage with countries where there are issues which are important to the UK’s national interest”. Note here the giveaway vocabulary of every public relations man: “engage” and “issues”. Certainly Dave could chat about the mass killing of at least 817 Egyptian male and female supporters of the Brotherhood at the Rabaa al-Adawiya square in 2013 – the second anniversary of which, by chance, falls this very week. Or he could discuss the slaughter that followed near Ramses station; or the burning to death of alleged Brotherhood members in a police truck two days later.

He could even produce the witness statement I have just been sent by an Egyptian doctor working in Britain who went to the aid of his wounded countrymen and women in Cairo, more than 60 of whom were killed a month before the Rabaa slaughter. This doctor discovered that many of the dead and dying had gunshot wounds to the head – “patients with their heads blown off” – the first of whom was a middle- aged man who had “quite literally a fountain of blood pouring from his head”. The man died on the operating table. 

The same doctor discovered a dead body in a street on the way to his Cairo hospital. The man “had been severely tortured. There were signs of electrocution on various parts of the body, skid marks all over the body, particularly the thighs, buttocks and torso, and there were rope marks on the wrist.”

 

Every few days, the doctor writes, “we would get random dead bodies that were found on the roads, tortured to death in prison and thrown into the streets to scare protesters off”.

When family members, some clearly Brotherhood supporters, arrived for the bodies, “there were people crying all around, and some rejoicing that their relatives were martyrs. It was the most mortifying scene.”

But Dave’s a public relations man to his bones and this, I promise, will not be an “issue” in which he will want to “engage” the Field Marshal. Far more likely, he will want to mull over the £7.58bn deal that BP signed in Egypt this year to help the country through its energy crisis. Or perhaps the “new” Suez Canal launched with ludicrous fanfare only last week. Dave would understand the public relations success of the word “new”, when all that was constructed was a 20-mile bypass system for ships on the 120-mile canal.

He could comment on what a noble figure the Egyptian civilian president cut when he appeared on King Farouk’s old royal yacht at the opening – he was once more in military costume adorned with lots of medals – to watch an air display by more fighter aircraft than Britain can produce for its “new Battle of Britain” against Isis; those were the words of Dave’s Defence Secretary Michael “Chocks Away” Fallon, of course, who doesn’t possess Dave’s PR skills.

But public relations were scarcely up to the mark at the canal last week. Egyptian banners with the state eagle missing from the national flag ... Egyptians dressed up in Pharaonic dress like the soldiers at the late Shah’s grotesque Persepolis party before the 1979 Iranian revolution ... the presence of President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan – wasn’t he supposed to be in The Hague on war crime charges?  

Now, however, many are asking when (or if) al-Sisi will actually come to London. The president-field marshal long ago conflated his Muslim Brotherhood antagonists with the ferocious Isis faction that is now massacring his soldiers and policemen in Sinai and attacking Egyptian naval vessels off the coast. And in Cairo itself, there are now disturbing signs that the Brotherhood is suffering its own divisions, its leadership neutered and its youth asking whether their “blood sacrifice” might not better be pursued with Isis-style violence.

Wasn’t there another Arab regime in 2011 whose opponents were condemned as “terrorists”, only to be replaced by Isis itself? Yes, maybe the Downing Street invitation should also be “postponed”. Then Dave can find a sandpit closer to home in which he’ll make fewer blunders.