MENASource|News, Analysis, Perspectives

April 26, 2014
Tony Blair's views on Islamism and the Middle East – including Egypt – received a controversial airing at a speech he gave on Wednesday, in which he called for the West to intervene across the region against Islamism, and in support of its opponents. 

Mr. Blair said that even moderate Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, foster totalitarian aspirations and provide fertile soil for terrorism.

Two former British diplomats with extensive experience in the Middle East told EgyptSource that Blair's proposed campaign against Islamism, broadly defined, would receive little support in the UK Foreign Office. They agreed that his speech did reflect concerns in Britain's foreign policy establishment, but differed on the extent to which that is the case.


In his speech to Bloomberg in London on Wednesday, Tony Blair set out, more comprehensively than ever before, a vision of the Middle East, and of the West's role in the region.

Blair argued that turmoil in the Middle East "represents the biggest threat to global security of the early 21st century" and "at the root of the crisis lies a radicalized and politicized view of Islam."

Specifically, Blair criticized "a deep desire to separate the political ideology represented by groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood from the actions of extremists including acts of terrorism." But this is wrong, he argued: "the ideology [Islamism] itself is nonetheless dangerous and corrosive."

"Their overall ideology is one which inevitably creates the soil in which such extremism can take root," he continued.

Blair said that the future of the region hung on that of Egypt.

"The Muslim Brotherhood Government was not simply a bad Government," he said. "It was systematically taking over the traditions and institutions of the country. The revolt of 30 June 2013 was not an ordinary protest. It was the absolutely necessary rescue of a nation. We should support the new Government and help."

Blair, who was often criticized during his time as Prime Minister of the UK for a Manichaean worldview, said "there is a Titanic struggle going on within the region", one "with two sides."

Richard Dalton, a former British ambassador to both Iran and Libya and now an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Programme of Chatham House, the London-based think tank, said that "some" would be attracted to Blair's solutions.

"But I believe them to be in a minority whether in Parliament, Whitehall or the academic community," he wrote in an email.  "Most people recognize that more harm lies in over-simplification of the complex local situations in which Islamism is in play."

Two analysts at think tanks close to the UK Foreign Office agreed with Dalton that Blair's views would find little echo in the long corridors of Whitehall.

"There are people who share his view, but I don't think that the apocalyptic vision that Blair has for the region is really shared by many people in the Foreign Office," said Michael Stephens of the Royal United Services Institute. "I also don't think there's a lot of love for the new regime in Egypt, although there are widely differing views about the Muslim Brotherhood and what sort of organization it is."

"Mr. Blair and certain people in the establishment in Britain do find the situation of Christians in the Middle East extremely worrying," he continued.

"My own take is that he is an embarrassing irrelevance and entirely discredited," said David Butter also an Associate Fellow at Chatham House.

But a former British diplomat who has served widely across the Middle East argued that, although simplistic at times, Blair's speech "does reflect growing unease within government at the continued rise of Islamist extremism."

"That unease is fuelled," he continued, "by what is happening in Syria and by the intolerance shown by the Muslim Brotherhood during their brief tenure in Egypt, but, perhaps more importantly, also a growing unease at [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan's behaviour."

Erdogan, elected for the third time in 2011, begun to attract snowballing international criticism in 2013, in the wake of initiatives critics saw as intended to entrench conservative social values over issues such as abortion and alcohol, and the suppression of protests against the demolition of Istanbul's Gezi Park. Recently, his government has been rocked by a series of corruption allegations.

"He has revealed the same autocratic tendencies that undid the Brotherhood, so it begs the question: can you trust Political Islam?  Is this a swamp that needs to be drained; or are there acceptable parts of the swamp that can be allowed to survive?"

Some felt, he said, that Britain had been naive in their attitude to the Brotherhood. "We accepted democratic short-comings in the so-called interests of encouraging democracy."

The two former diplomats differed in their opinions on the importance and possibility of working constructively with Islamists.

Dalton argued that it is necessary to bring Islamist movements such as Hamas within the political process – which Blair, in his role as Special Envoy for the Quartet on the Middle East, has rigidly resisted.

The other former diplomat said that an attempt to exterminate Islamism would only make it stronger, but that the West should seek to punish political exclusivism of the sort he argued that the Brotherhood and Erdogan practiced.

That former diplomat said that the review of the Muslim Brotherhood and its alleged links to terrorism, recently ordered by UK Prime Minister David Cameron, is a reflection of real concerns and real uncertainty about the movement within government, as well as pressure from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which Blair has visited at least twice so far this year.

The former diplomat believes that Blair's antipathy for Islamism is deeply personal. "It's something very close to his soul," he said.

Tom Dale is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Cairo. He has been reporting from Egypt and Libya since 2011. You can follow him on twitter at @tom_d_.