The UK must do more to stand up for democracy in Egypt

All existing British and EU aid and support for Egypt should be placed under urgent review.

The world has watched the rising death toll in Egypt this week with horror and foreboding. The UN Security Council has already met and EU foreign ministers are due to meet next week but the question remains what practical steps the international community can take to help stop the killing and secure stability and democracy.

In my view, it is vital that the international community does more to demonstrate to the Egyptian generals that they cannot act with impunity.
Although it is true that the UK's influence on the situation is limited, the fact that we can't do everything does not mean we shouldn't do anything.

First, the UK government must review all existing arms export licenses that have been issued to Egypt. The UK Consolidated Criteria prevent the UK from granting licenses in cases where goods exported could be used for internal repression. Given recent developments in Cairo, in particular in the last 72 hours, the UK government now has a responsibility to make clear that all export licences previously granted continue to meet this criteria and review existing licences with this standard in mind.

Second, all existing British and EU aid and support for Egypt must be placed under urgent review. This week I urged the UK government to seek an immediate meeting of EU foreign ministers and I welcome the decision to hold such a meeting next Monday. I hope foreign ministers gathered there will agree to review all existing support provided directly to the Egyptian authorities. European co-operation with Egypt should not continue as normal when civilians are being killed and basic rights are being undermined.

Third, the UK government must - of course - keep travel advice for Egypt under constant review given the dangerous and deadly scenes in Cairo. I have seen for myself, when I was an FCO Minister, the skill and care with which the department's officials conduct such reviews and that system needs to be fully operational in light of the potential risks for British citizens in the country in the coming days.

The US administration remains a key player in the region. Earlier this week I made clear my view that the time has now come for the UK government to encourage the US administration to suspend its $1.3bn military aid package to Egypt as the US government's review of its relationship with Egypt continues. So I welcome the news that President Obama has now announced that the US will cancel the joint military exercise with Egypt "Operation Bright Star".

The primary responsibility for restoring calm and stability within Egypt rests, however, with the interim Egyptian government. The UK government should continue to urge them to suspend the State of Emergency and commit now to a fixed timetable for holding new elections.

For a better future - not just for Egypt but for the whole Middle East - it is vital that those people who want to express their political support for Islamic parties continue to believe there is a viable democratic path open to them. That democratic path rejects the hateful ideology of Al-Qaeda that claims only violence can achieve change. So the stakes are high. The risks remain real. And the responsibility on the international community to speak up for stability and democracy is clear.

Egyptian military armored vehicles stand guard at a checkpoint on the edge of Tahrir Square by the Egyptian Museum on August 16, 2013 in Cairo. Photograph: Getty Images.

Douglas Alexander is the shadow foreign secretary and Labour MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.