Minister: 'Prepare to work with the Islamists'

Alistair Burt

Alistair Burt

We should prepare for Islamists in government and even Islamist governments in the wake of the Arab Spring, the minister responsible for the Middle East said this week.

Speaking before next week's Conservative Party conference in Manchester, Alistair Burt said there was a need to distinguish between Islamists who were prepared to support peace within the new democracies and those, such as Hamas, who did not adhere to the same principles as the UK.

"I don't think any reader should wake up one morning and be surprised or amazed that Islamists constitute MPs or even a government," he said. "What's important is not the labels. Within the Arab world, the label 'Islamist' covers a range of attitudes towards democracy. What we should all do is judge people on their actions as well as their words."

Mr Burt said: "All of us who live in democracies should celebrate the fact that people who previously did not, now have the opportunity to do so. From what we see of those who are advancing the cause in Egypt, Tunisia, in Libya, these principles will be there."

At the same time, he said, the UK would have no relationship with governments committed to the destruction of Israel.

Speaking of the Arab Spring, he said: "We have to believe that it is better when people are given the opportunity to state their preferences on peace, on security, on the system of government, on the welfare of their people, on the education of their children. You've got to be better in a free society."

He said Israel had maintained relationships with authoritarian governments and should seek to do so with the emerging democracies.

But he said the situation in Syria was "deeply worrying". He spent much time at the UN in conversation with countries that have greater leverage than Britain with Syria. Nevertheless, oil sanctions put in place by the EU would have a considerable effect.

"Ninety per cent of Syrian oil exports go to the EU," he said. "These constitute 25 per cent of the revenues that go to Syria and this will now stop."

He denied that events in the Middle East meant that Britain had taken its eye off the ball with Iran. He had addressed the issue of Iran's nuclear capacity in Vienna immediately before flying to New York. "We continue to raise this issue directly with the Iranians and to urge them to come back into talks," he said.

Last updated: 1:14pm, September 27 2011