MPs: Talk to Arab Spring parties

Britain should engage more deeply with the Islamist parties which have been successful in elections in "Arab Spring" countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, an MPs' report has said.

Engaging with parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, which won last month's presidential election in Egypt, will demonstrate at an early stage the UK's support and assistance for democratically-elected leaders who respect human rights and democratic reforms, said the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee.

But the cross-party committee cautioned that the UK must "prioritise the particular concerns of women and religious minorities" as it pursues closer relations with new Islamist governments.

The report said Britain should make reform-related assistance to the Arab Spring region a priority when it takes up the presidency of the G8 group of the world's leading powers in 2013.

But it noted that the UK's reputation has been harmed in the region by the perception that in its past dealings with dictators and military regimes it has "prioritised its own interests, particularly in stability, commerce and counter-terrorism, over the promotion of more representative governments and criticism of human rights violations".

British statements on human rights and democracy "are consequently met with scepticism in the region today", cautioned the report.

While it is right to tie aid to conditions on human rights, this must be done "sensitively and gradually" because of perceptions in the Arab Spring countries that no such conditions were imposed by the West on toppled leaders such as Hosni Mubarak or Muammar Gaddafi.

"The EU's failure to apply conditionality to its aid to former dictators has consequences for their attempts to 'learn lessons' and apply conditionality today," the committee warned. "It is right that there be a relationship between aid and human rights, but this should be done sensitively and gradually for struggling and fragile democracies."

The report also voiced concern that shortages of Foreign Office (FCO) staff, language expertise and information gathering in the Middle East and north Africa may have hampered the UK's response to the Arab Spring.

Committee chairman Richard Ottaway said: "It is not reasonable to have expected FCO diplomats to have predicted the Arab Spring uprisings with precision. However, we are concerned by reports that the FCO's linguistic skills and staffing levels had reduced in the years before the uprisings. The FCO must consider what lessons can be learned from its experience with the Arab Spring and what steps it can take to improve its ability to anticipate such events in the future."