Mr Speaker, with permission, I shall make a statement on recent developments in the middle east and north Africa. Over the past few weeks, we have witnessed events of a truly historic nature in the region, including changes of Government in Tunisia and Egypt, and widespread calls for greater economic development and political participation.
Last week, I visited Tunisia, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates to discuss the situation with our partners in the region. I held talks in Tunis with interim Prime Minister Ghannouchi, who is overseeing ambitious plans to open up Tunisia’s political system, reform its constitution, revive its economy and prepare for free elections. I strongly welcome those intentions, and the steps that the Tunisians have taken to sign up to international conventions on human rights.
I met some inspiring young students, whose motivation was a desire for the freedom, employment and human dignity that we enjoy in Europe. I believe that there is now a clear opportunity for a closer relationship between the United Kingdom and Tunisia. I discussed how the UK might support projects in Tunisia through our new Arab partnership fund. New funding was announced to the House on 1 February that will support economic and political development across the region.
In Egypt as in Tunisia, there is now a precious moment of opportunity for the people to achieve a stable and democratic future. Yesterday, I spoke to Egyptian Foreign Minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, and the Prime Minister, Ahmed Shafiq. I welcomed the statements of the higher military council that promised a peaceful transition to civilian and democratic government, new elections and the reform of the Egyptian constitution.
Tahrir square is calm today after yesterday’s announcements of the dissolution of Parliament and the suspension of the constitution. I encouraged the Egyptian Government to make further moves to accommodate the views of opposition figures, and was pleased to hear from Prime Minister Shafiq that members of the opposition should be included in a reshuffled Cabinet during the next week. We would also like to see a clear timetable for free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections, and a genuinely inclusive dialogue about the country’s future. We welcome the military council’s commitment to all regional and international obligations and treaties.
Egypt is a sovereign country, and we must not seek to dictate who runs its affairs, but we have been clear throughout this crisis that it is in our national interests as well as Egypt’s for it to make a successful transition to a broad-based Government and an open and democratic society, and to an Egypt that carries its full and due weight as a leading nation in the middle east and in the world.
I believe that we have been right to speak particularly strongly against repression of, or violence against, protesters, journalists and human rights activists. We call now for the release of those detained during the demonstrations and for steps to end the state of emergency, which curtails basic rights. The UK must always uphold the right to peaceful protest and freedom of speech.
Looking to the future, it is vital and urgent that we work with the EU and other nations to support economic development and more open and flexible political systems in the region. We have begun discussions with the United States on co-ordinating our assistance. The Prime Minister discussed that with President Obama this weekend, as I did with Secretary Clinton. We can help with the building blocks of open societies, knowing as we do that a stable democracy requires much more than just holding elections. We are also working closely with Baroness Ashton and her officials. A taskforce has been set up in Brussels to put together a plan for immediate assistance and long-term support for Tunisia, and a plan of long-term economic and institutional assistance for Egypt.
The UK Government is in close communication with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to ensure that they are doing all they can to provide appropriate and timely support to Egypt. We have also received a request from the Egyptian Government to freeze the assets of several former Egyptian officials. We will of course co-operate with this request, working with EU and international partners as we have done in the case of Tunisia. If there is any evidence of illegality or misuse of state assets, we will take firm and prompt action. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will discuss economic support and possible freezing measures relating to assets with European Union finance Ministers tonight and tomorrow in Brussels, and has requested a discussion at ECOFIN tomorrow.
I hope that the House will also join me in paying tribute to the staff of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and those who over the past three weeks have calmly and professionally run our embassy within yards of Tahrir square, while assisting the departure of thousands of British nationals from Egypt, and to teams from the Ministry of Defence and the UK Borders Agency. We will keep our travel advice under constant review.
The changes taking place in the region provide opportunities that should be seized, not feared. In Egypt, a nation of more than 80 million people should soon have the opportunity to choose their President and their representatives democratically. In Tunisia, more than 10 million people may now finally have the opportunity to unleash the economic potential that their geographic location and talented population puts within their grasp, and to enjoy democratic freedoms.
But this moment is not without risk. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Yemen, where I spent a day in meetings with President Saleh and members of the Opposition. I had three clear messages to the Government there. First, we want them to make progress on national dialogue with the opposition parties, including agreement on changes to the constitution and action to address the grievances of people in Yemen. Secondly, we have asked for and are now examining a prioritised and budgeted development plan for poverty reduction from the Yemeni Government so that we can establish a multi-donor trust fund for Yemen and be confident that funds are properly used. These issues will be the main focus of the next Friends of Yemen meeting in the coming months.
We also look for intensified Yemeni efforts against the al-Qaeda threat on their territory. I know that the House will salute the courage of our embassy staff in Yemen, who face the highest threat of any of our posts overseas and were attacked twice by terrorists in the last year.
There is also a serious risk that Governments will draw the wrong conclusion from instability in the middle east and pull back from efforts to restart the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. We should draw the opposite conclusion, which is that we need to see an urgent return to talks so that people’s legitimate aspirations for two states can be fulfilled through negotiations. This was the main subject of my discussions with King Abdullah of Jordan, as well as the recent steps the Jordanian Government have taken to promote domestic reform. In a region of uncertainty, the certainty provided by an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians would be of immense significance.
The Government are a friend to both Israelis and Palestinians. We are calling for both sides to show the visionary boldness to return to talks and make genuine compromises. Talks need to take place on the basis of clear parameters. In our view, the entire international community, including the United States, should now support the 1967 borders as the basis for resumed negotiations. The result should be two states, with Jerusalem as the future capital of both, and a fair settlement for refugees.
Finally, we must not allow our attention to be diverted from the grave danger of Iran’s nuclear programme. Iran claimed that it supported protestors in Egypt, but it has denied its own people the right of free expression today and placed opposition leaders under house arrest. Meanwhile, the threat from its nuclear programme has not diminished. Given Iran’s refusal to engage in genuine negotiations over its nuclear programme at the recent talks in Istanbul, we are now in talks with international partners about steps to increase the legitimate peaceful pressure on Iran to comply with UN Security Council resolutions and the requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
All the issues that I have described underline how important the region is to our national interests. That is why we began, from our first day in office, a major, long-term effort to intensify Britain’s links with the countries of the middle east, north Africa and the Gulf —in diplomacy, trade, education, health and civil society —as part of a distinctive British policy towards the region.
I reaffirmed last week to leaders in Bahrain and the UAE that we are committed to intensifying our engagement on foreign policy and that we will step up our discussions with the Gulf states on Iran’s nuclear programme over the coming months. We will also pursue firm engagement with countries where we do not see eye to eye but have a considerable interest in edging those states towards a more constructive role. That was a process that I began when I visited Damascus two weeks ago for talks with President Assad. At this time of opportunity and uncertainty, the UK will therefore be an active and distinctive voice in the middle east. We will send a constant message about how important it is to move in the direction of more open and flexible political systems, and sound economic development, while respecting the different cultures, histories and traditions of each nation. Although we cannot set the pace of this change and must respect each country’s right to find its own way, we will be a reliable friend and partner to all those looking to do so, and a staunch defender of Britain’s interests in the region.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for prior sight of the statement he has just offered to the House. I welcome several aspects of the statement and join him, of course, in praising the work of officials in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on the ground in Egypt and, in particular, the bravery of British staff working under difficult circumstances in Yemen. I also welcome the discussion of the use of the new Arab partnership fund and the work under way to co-ordinate international efforts to provide appropriate and timely support to Egypt. I also welcome the Foreign Secretary’s remarks last week emphasising the continuing importance of the middle east peace process—sentiments that he has echoed again today—and his continued efforts to help to address the continuing challenges facing Yemen and the grave threat of Iran’s nuclear programme.
As we watched a moment of history unfold on our television screens on Friday night, few of us would not have sensed history being made amid peaceful celebration and a genuine sense of hope and possibility communicated by the people of Egypt. Old certainties—political, regional and strategic—have been challenged by the scenes of hundreds of thousands of people on the streets of Cairo and elsewhere in the Arab world demanding a fundamental change in the relationship between the governed and their governments. I would therefore like, in particular, to address three points covered by the Foreign Secretary’s remarks. The first is the work that the Government are doing, in conjunction with the interim Egyptian Administration and the Serious Fraud Office, to ensure that assets wrongly taken from either the people of Tunisia or the people of Egypt are pursued and returned. The second is the British Government’s position on the future of Egypt, and the third is the implications of all these events on the wider region and the middle east peace process.
Earlier this month, it was reported that the assets of 46 allies and relatives of former President Ben Ali had been frozen following talks with the Tunisian Government. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that this has indeed gone ahead, and update the House on the work of British and European Union officials to ensure that any assets wrongfully appropriated from the people of Tunisia by former President Ben Ali are returned to them? In recent days, there have been many media reports suggesting that former President Mubarak has a very large personal fortune held in bank accounts and property in the United Kingdom and Switzerland, among other countries. Yesterday, the Business Secretary said:
“I think it would be great for the reputation for the City of London if those accounts were frozen now.”
Yesterday, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) stated on the radio:
“There has to be a request made for any of this action to take place…There are things that can be done, but so far there has not been a request made and therefore it is not possible to speculate”.
I note, however, from the Foreign Secretary’s statement to the House this afternoon, that a request has now been received from the Egyptian Government. Will he therefore tell the House precisely when the request was received and what subsequent actions the Government have taken to freeze the relevant assets since its receipt? Will he inform the House what instructions have now been given to the Serious Fraud Office in the light of the request, and when the SFO began its actions in relation to the matter? Given the comments earlier today from the chairman of the Euro Group, Jean-Claude Juncker, supporting an asset freeze, will he explain the need for a delay in taking action before tomorrow’s meeting with European Finance Ministers? Why cannot this issue be addressed through direct contact and agreement with capitals prior to the meeting taking place? For the assurance of the House, will he confirm that he agrees with the Opposition that the UK should play its part in ensuring that any money that rightly belongs to the Egyptian people is returned to them?
Let me turn to the broader issue of Egypt’s future. The events of Thursday and Friday last week were extraordinary, but the question dominating our debate is: what comes next? The Foreign Secretary expressed his support for a clear timetable, but what is the British Government’s specific policy on the timing of the elections? Should they follow the timetable set out by President Mubarak on Thursday, or is it the Government’s view that a longer transitional period would now be more appropriate? Important as they are, free and fair elections alone do not guarantee effective democratic governance, which involves the vital and unglamorous task of building a series of institutions, as we heard, from diverse political parties to a free press, and from legal safeguards for human rights and minorities to an independent judiciary.
During that transition, are the Foreign Secretary and his officials pressing the higher military council for the emergency laws to be removed and detainees freed, and for maximum freedom to be given to political parties and trade unions to organise in preparation for democratic elections? The polarising policy adopted by the Mubarak regime undermined moderates and ensured that perhaps the two most powerful and enduring post-Mubarak power structures in Egypt are the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. Have officials from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office met the Muslim Brotherhood in recent days? Will the Foreign Secretary give us his latest assessment of the nature of the organisation and the strength of its support in Egypt, and say how he assesses its potential impact on Britain’s objectives for the region, which he set out for the House today?
Let me turn briefly to the consequences of these developments on the wider region. The Foreign Secretary met the Government of Yemen in recent days. Will he offer us the latest security assessment of the threat posed by al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula? Having attended the London Friends of Yemen conference in my capacity as Secretary of State for International Development, I am aware of the challenges faced in Yemen, so will he update the House on how British resources are being used, ahead of the establishment of the multi-donor trust fund, to address the development and security challenges faced in Yemen?
I welcome the reference made by the Foreign Secretary to the situation of the Iranian opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who has reportedly been placed under house arrest in order to prevent him from attending demonstrations in Tehran. Will the Foreign Secretary share with the House what further steps he is contemplating in speaking up for human rights in Iran? He has expressed his rightful concern about the grave danger of Iran’s nuclear programme, so will he update the House on his assessment of the prospects for the E3 plus 3 process, given the disappointing failure of the talks in Istanbul?
The announcement of the formation of a new Cabinet of the Palestinian Authority, combined with the planned presidential and legislative elections in September, is widely perceived as yet another consequence of the events in Tunisia and Egypt of recent days. The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, also reportedly offered his resignation on Saturday, although reports suggest that Mr Abbas has not yet accepted it. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what the situation is in the Palestinian Authority, and say what further information he has about the timing of those elections?
For many involved in the peace process from the Israeli side, the events of the last few weeks will have been unsettling. Although the cold peace with Mr Mubarak was the foundation of Israel’s regional security, the events of recent days show just how brittle that supposed stability was. What discussions has the right hon. Gentleman had with his Israeli counterpart on the subject, and what he has done to urge the Israelis to see recent events as an impetus for a renewed commitment to the peace process? I am sure that I speak for all parts of the House when I say that, for the region, a peace one day between the legitimate representatives of the people of Egypt and a secure Israel would be an even greater prize than the last 30 years of stability.
The right hon. Gentleman asks a wide range of questions, and I shall try to go through them. I thank him for his words about the staff of the Foreign Office, and about what they have done and continue to do in Yemen, as well as in Egypt. I know that it will mean a lot to them to be appreciated in all parts of the House.
I also thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support for what I have said about the middle east peace process. As I understood it, he supports the intensification of our measures on Iran, which I talked about in my statement. These are conscious changes in policy. It is a conscious change in policy for not only us, but the United States to say that a settlement in the middle east should be based on 1967 borders. It is a conscious change in policy to say that now, on top of the measures agreed in the European Union last year, the peaceful pressure on Iran must be intensified. To be joined by the Opposition in those changes of policy gives strength to them, and it always counts for a great deal in foreign policy for this House to speak in a united way.
I might have to take the right hon. Gentleman’s questions in reverse order, but I will try to get through them all. This leads us naturally to a discussion of the peace process, which I have discussed with my Israeli counterpart. Foreign Minister Lieberman visited London on 24 January, and we have also had more recent discussions with the Israeli Government. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) was there over the weekend, underlining the point that the events in the region strengthen the case for making a success of negotiations on a two-state solution. I hope that recent events will be a jolt to many among the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships, showing them that, in the next few years, the opportunity to find a two-state solution will slip away unless there is a renewed readiness to engage in the process.
I am concerned about instability on the Palestinian side of the negotiations. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the reported offer by the Palestinian chief negotiator to resign. There is also the prospect of elections among the Palestinians. This instability also underlines the importance of finding a way of getting the direct talks going again soon. The United Kingdom is very active diplomatically in trying to do that, and we will continue to be so.
The right hon. Gentleman asks about the prospects for the E3 plus 3 negotiations with Iran. There will be prospects for those negotiations only if Iran approaches them entirely differently from the way in which its negotiators approached the meeting in Istanbul on 21 and 22 January. The preconditions that Iran set for that meeting were entirely unrealistic, as Iran knew. It is important that it should be prepared to discuss its whole nuclear programme with the E3 plus 3 if such negotiations are to succeed. The door remains open to negotiations with Iran, but, so far, it has not proved willing to enter it.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about Yemen. There is of course a serious threat to our national security from the operations of al-Qaeda in Yemen. The recently well-reported cargo bomb plot was evidence of that. We are active in Yemen. The right hon. Gentleman will be familiar with the fact that the Department for International Development is very active there, with £50 million of support in the current year helping to provide more schools, to increase the number of doctors and to help with microfinance projects. That is valuable work, but we could do a lot more if we had the agreed framework of working with Yemen that we are calling for through the Friends of Yemen process, including the detailed development and poverty reduction plan. We received details of that plan just as I arrived in Yemen, and we are now examining it. I regard our work on the affairs and stability of Yemen in the coming months to be of great importance in the conduct of our foreign policy.
We certainly agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s points about the future of Egypt. I think I mentioned in my statement that we want detainees to be freed. We also want to see a clear timetable for elections. There is an expectation that they will take place in six months, but not yet a categorical commitment. It would be wise to meet that expectation. As he and I have both said, however, democracy is more than about holding elections. What matters even more than the date is that the process between now and then should allow new political parties and civil society in general to grow and prosper. That is why it is important that emergency laws should be lifted, and that we and other nations—not only European nations but democratic Muslim nations such as Turkey and Indonesia—should join in the building up of civil society in Egypt. As the right hon. Gentleman said, that space between the National Democratic party and the Muslim Brotherhood has not been filled before. The Opposition parties in Egypt are small and weak.
We retain, as the previous Government did, certain contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood—in particular with those who were elected Members of Parliament in the 2005 elections. There has been normal contact with them, and that contact continues. Those people have clearly taken part in recent events in Egypt, although they are insistent that they will not be contesting the presidency of the country. We will maintain our contact with them, and judge them by their behaviour.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the seizure of assets. Yes, the requests made by the Tunisian Government are being acted on. The freeze has been implemented, investigations are taking place, and the ways in which our authorities should co-operate with that are being followed up.
The specific request from Egypt was received this morning. That is why there is a difference between what the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) said on the radio yesterday, when that request had not been received—and had certainly not been seen by Ministers—and the information put out this morning, which is that such a request has been received and will be acted on.
To clarify an issue for the right hon. Gentleman, it is not the Serious Fraud Office, but the Serious Organised Crime Agency that is involved in the investigation of assets acquired through corruption. We, of course, have to abide by the law on this matter. That means that we will act on requests from foreign countries, but that Ministers can direct an investigation or a seizure and freezing of assets only if they are in possession of evidence of criminal activity or of a threat to our national security. We are under certain constraints if no request is received. Nevertheless, the European Union is able to implement an assets freeze for wider purposes, which is what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is discussing with his colleagues in the EU tonight. We are acting on this expeditiously, and I thoroughly agree with the general sentiment that the right hon. Gentleman expressed about this issue.
In unreservedly welcoming the Egyptian revolution and similar uprisings elsewhere in the middle east, may I commend the Foreign Secretary, his predecessor and, indeed, the United States Government for insisting on having good working relationships even with autocratic regimes in the middle east which, regardless of their internal affairs which we deplore, have pursued moderate and constructive policies, seeking dialogue with Israel and working in a peaceful way towards a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine? Does the Foreign Secretary agree that any other approach would never have served the best interests of that region?
I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. That is the policy he pursued when he held my office. It is important to do that in any practical approach to foreign policy. In fact, I would go a little further than my right hon. and learned Friend, as it is also important to have some kind of dialogue with autocratic regimes even when they have not always pursued moderate and sensible policies. As I mentioned, I visited Syria just over two weeks ago, where, of course, we disagreed. I disagreed in our meetings with President Assad about Syria’s relationship with Iran, about the country’s human rights record and the about the situation in Lebanon. Even with such countries, however, it is important to have dialogue. Diplomacy in foreign policy is not just about talking to people with whom we agree.
In welcoming the right hon. Gentleman’s tough line on the middle east peace process, may I inform him that last week I led a delegation of Members of Parliament and Members of the European Parliament from several European countries to visit four refugee camps in Lebanon? I saw there the worst conditions I have ever seen in refugee camps—including even those in Gaza—and especially in Bourj al-Barajneh, which is a hell on earth. May I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that being bred in those refugee camps is an anger and bitterness against Israel—with huge numbers of children living in squalor of the worst kind—which will place in jeopardy the future existence of the state of Israel unless a settlement is reached soon?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for those reflections on his visit. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire visited the same location in June, so we are well aware of the circumstances that the right hon. Gentleman describes. Part of the discussions I have with the Israeli Government leaders involves pointing out that the long-term trends are against the strategic security of Israel and make that harder to guarantee in the future, unless it is possible in the near future to make a breakthrough on peace talks with the Palestinians that then unlock the potential of a comprehensive peace in the region, with a fair settlement for refugees, which is an important aspect. To find determination in the Israeli Government as well as among the Palestinian leaders to drive that forward in the coming months must be one of our prime foreign policy goals.
My right hon. Friend will be well aware of the significant contribution made by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy in the states of eastern Europe—countries with no history of democracy—during the 20 years since the Berlin wall came down. May I assure him that we are well able to play our part in the exciting events in the middle east and north Africa, and will stand ready to do so at the invitation of the peoples of those countries?
I welcome what my hon. Friend has said. A couple of weeks ago I announced an increase in funds for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which I consider to be part of the mixture of support for civil society and the development of political parties when that is appropriate and agreed with the countries concerned. I very much hope that the foundation will be able to play a role in both Tunisia and Egypt.
Does the Foreign Secretary share my dismay that the first act of the new military rulers in Egypt—the generals and colonels who are now in charge there—has been to ban strikes and, in effect, prevent trade unions from functioning? Are we not in danger of seeing an agreement between men in uniform and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood that will leave no space for secular democracy, which must allow a degree of social justice and the right of Egyptian workers to organise freely?
It is indeed very important for secular democratic parties to be given space in which to develop. That is one of the issues on which I exchanged comments with the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander) a moment ago. The military council has made many announcements that we should welcome—I listed them in my statement—but that does not mean that we agree with everything that it says or does. One of the things that we are encouraging the Egyptian Government to do, which I discussed with the Egyptian Prime Minister and Foreign Minister yesterday, is to continue to “reach out”, as we would say in the jargon, to opposition groups in Egypt—including, of course, trade unions and small opposition political parties—and ensure that they feel included in the process that is taking place. I am sure that that is the soundest approach.
I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on the return of a wise and distinctive British voice to the middle east, and warmly endorse the wise words of our right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind). Does the Foreign Secretary agree that it will be extremely important to work closely with the organisation set up by Lady Ashton in the European Union, which has so much to contribute to ensuring that institutions in Egypt are financed and assisted as they walk towards democracy?
Absolutely. That is important and urgent work, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State met Lady Ashton on Friday to discuss it in detail. It is one of the main ways in which we can assist in Egypt. The taskforce is doing its work in Brussels, and the United Kingdom will be very much part of that. I believe that we will be able to co-ordinate what we are doing across the European Union to give a serious measure of support to the process of change in Egypt.
I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on what he has said today and, indeed, on what he said on the eve of his regional tour last week about the added urgency that the happy events in Egypt give to restarting the middle east peace process, but can he reassure the House that the American Administration share his analysis and, more importantly, are prepared to put on Israel the requisite pressure which, as we know from our experience of the past 20 years, is the only thing that will lead to a lasting solution?
I discussed that with Secretary Clinton yesterday. I think that we should salute the efforts that she and former Senator George Mitchell have made in recent times. I am very conscious from all the meetings and discussions that I have had with them since May last year of the sheer energy and time that they put into trying to ensure that direct talks continued after September, when they unfortunately came to a halt.
The position that I have said that the United States and all of us should take is not yet the position of the United States, but I have informed the House openly that it is what we are advocating. I should have liked the statement on parameters to which I referred to be part of the Quartet statement issued in Munich just over a week ago. It was not part of that, but we will continue to advocate it, and I hope that it will become part of the approach of the whole Quartet, including the United States.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the tone he has struck with emerging and potential Administrations in north Africa, but there are countries in the wider region that are embarked upon a process of political evolution, not revolution. What can Her Majesty’s Government do to help them?
We do, of course, work closely with those Governments. The evolutionary approach is a much wiser one, and, indeed, had the Egyptian leaders taken that approach in recent years—or even recent months—I think they would have been in a much stronger position over the past few weeks. That point has not been lost around the region, and some nations have introduced important political and economic reforms. Jordan is one of them, as I mentioned earlier, and Bahrain is another; it has already held three sets of national elections. That is not to say everything in all these countries is exactly as we would desire it, but they are embarked on a process of evolution and developing more open political systems, and we should welcome and support that.
We are currently embarked upon the search for those measures, so I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the specifics of the answer, but as I am calling for an intensification of measures of peaceful pressure on Iran, it is clear that we are looking to intensify some of the economic sanctions that have already been agreed and put in place. I will have to return to the House with more details on that when we have discussed it with our international partners.
On a subject that the shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander) raised, although I do not think I answered him, we continue to speak up for human rights in Iran at every opportunity. Our ambassador has sometimes been roundly abused for doing so, but he does not shrink from doing so, and I have taken the opportunity to do so again today. We do so regularly through the Foreign Office website and other means of communication, and Iranians are able to hear some broadcasts and communications, such as those from the relevant BBC channel. We will continue to stick up for human rights.
Although I agree with my right hon. Friend that the current situation can, and should, give fresh impetus to the middle east peace process, there is considerable concern in Israel about the country’s future security. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that he will do all he can to guarantee that the new regime in Egypt honours its obligations under the 1979 treaty?
As I mentioned in my statement, we strongly welcome the statement of the military council in Egypt over the weekend that international obligations and treaties are to be upheld, and the United Kingdom will strongly put the case to any future Government in Egypt that that should be their starting position in foreign policy.
Given what the Foreign Secretary has said about the middle east peace process, which I endorse, does he share the view of the Israeli newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, which said today that it is a little worrying that a country that refers to itself as the only democracy in the middle east should apparently feel so uncomfortable at having a democracy next door? As Gaza still suffers under blockade, can the Foreign Secretary tell the House what is happening with the blockade in the light of recent events, what Israel is doing and what is happening at the Rafah crossing?
It is important for us all to have some faith in democracy. Instability on its own is, of course, a danger to the success of the peace process, but democracy itself is not a danger. We must have faith in what we practise in this country and believe in for others, and we should give that advice to Israel as well. We look to Israel to implement fully the commitments it has entered into about access to Gaza. We welcomed those commitments when they were made some months ago, but I do not think that the flow of materials in and out of Gaza has yet met the prospect that was held out at the time. We consistently raise that with the Israeli Government. We have consistently raised our view that the blockade of Gaza is unsustainable and unacceptable. We continually look, therefore, for improvement—building on some very small improvements so far—in access to Gaza.
Given the continued belligerence of the Iranian nuclear programme, the strengthening of Hezbollah in Lebanon and of Hamas in Gaza, and the possible Islamisation of Egypt, does my right hon. Friend agree that Israel is now surrounded by Iranian allies or proxies? Does he have an assessment of the security threats to Israel and of the peace treaty?
Of course there are many security threats to Israel, but the way for Israel to chart its way forward away from those threats is to seek urgently the resumption of the direct talks with the Palestinians and to find the two-state solution that would ensure that many of those threats fell away. As I say, it is important to be positive about the change and the prospects in Egypt. It is important for Israelis to be positive and welcoming about that as well, because expressing excessive fears about Islamisation in Egypt—I hope that they become excessive; of course, I cannot know what will happen—may become a partly self-fulfilling prophecy. So we should take a more positive attitude than that, and the way forward is the reinvigorating of the peace process.
Just over a week ago, a group of Egyptians blew up a pipeline taking gas to Israel and Jordan. Were the Israelis right to be concerned about that?
Yes. We do not yet know what exactly happened in that incident, but it rightly caused concern in Israel and Jordan. I know from visiting Jordan last week that the extra energy costs resulting from the incident were several million pounds a day, in an economy that can ill afford it. That underlines the need for a rapid return to a state of affairs in Egypt that allows its economy to recover and provides stable security, which is why we have argued for an orderly transition and now the implementation of what the military council has pledged itself to. So, yes, people were right to be concerned about that, but the answer to that is stability and democracy in Egypt.
Yes, we are in discussion with all of our allies. I had an extensive discussion on north Africa and the middle east during my previous meeting with the French Foreign Minister, and we also discussed these matters at the Foreign Affairs Council on 31 January in Brussels. The situation in Algeria is also uncertain; a demonstration took place there at the weekend and its Government have announced certain reforms, including better media access for opposition groups, and economic and social reforms. That is a further illustration of how Governments across the region are noticing that they need to embark on those things to give better hope and prospects to their populations.
I welcome the strength and balance of the Foreign Secretary’s tone on the middle east peace process. He says that the Government are friends to both Israelis and Palestinians, but does he believe that that statement is believed and understood equally by Israelis and Palestinians? What confidence can he give those who have cause to doubt based on experience?
I hope that it is believed and understood. It is meant sincerely, by not only this Government but the previous Government and hon. Members from right across the House, that we want security and prosperity for all Israelis and Palestinians for the future. We want a secure Israel living alongside a viable, contiguous Palestinian state. Of course, every time one makes a policy announcement or expresses a preference for talks to resume in certain conditions, that can be seen as taking sides in some way, but that should not hold us back from advocating those things. This country believes these things and means them very sincerely, so let us all underline that fact.
May I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on his recent visit to Yemen—the first by a British Foreign Secretary since 1996? As my constituency includes East Midlands airport, I am well aware that instability in Yemen can lead to serious security risks in the UK.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those comments. As I have said, our diplomats and aid workers do a terrific job in Yemen, so I thought it important to visit that country to see what they do and to talk directly to the President of Yemen. The security concerns that my hon. Friend mentions were right at the top of the agenda and I asked the President further to reinvigorate and strengthen the efforts that the Yemeni authorities are making to take on and defeat al-Qaeda.
Quite understandably, events in Egypt overshadowed the announcement made by the Israeli Government on 4 February, which was welcomed by the Quartet the following day, of significant security easement on the west bank and—a little contrary to what the Foreign Secretary has just said—some easement of the blockade of Gaza. Does he accept that although those actions are not a substitute for final-status negotiations, in which both parties must engage, they are progress? As well as talking tough with Israel, which he seems to be specialising in these days, should he not congratulate Israel when it does the right thing and encourage the progress that we have seen in the past few days?
Of course I agree with that; we put out a statement welcoming those measures. The Quartet’s envoy, Tony Blair, played an important part in bringing about those confidence-building measures and I pay tribute to him for that. We certainly welcome those measures, but, nevertheless, the overall assessment of the situation in Gaza is as I described in answer to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden). It is important to make more significant compromises than have been offered by the Israelis or Palestinians in recent months in order to have real hope that direct talks can take place and succeed.
Does my right hon. Friend have a view on the way that social networking sites have affected the direct action in Egypt and Tunisia? Does he think that that is an unmitigated good or is there a risk that rumours and false information could be spread in that way and worsen the problems in the middle east?
Yes, there is no doubt that social networking sites have played an important role, particularly in Tunisia. That was very apparent from the young people I met and talked to there, many of whom, especially the young women, had taken part in the revolution on social networking sites rather than out in the streets. They were very proud of the way that they had co-ordinated their messages in the days before the revolution in order to intensify the action and demonstrations that took place. Those sites have played an important role and it is something that we should be positive about overall. The world is changing in a very significant way: people of all ages have access to communicating in that way and it is important that their freedom to do so is preserved. One way in which the Egyptian authorities have gone wrong in the past couple of weeks has been in trying to suppress access to the internet and misuse mobile telephone networks. People now have the right to use those things in a relatively open way.
Is the Foreign Secretary aware that there is a real need to review the whole policy strategy towards the middle east and north Africa? We have had 30 years of US aid pouring into Egypt with no discernible improvement in human rights and we have EU trade agreements with a number of countries that include a human rights clause that has not been enforced or effected. Is it not time for us to look again at the whole strategy for the region? Mubarak was in effect supported, particularly by the US, and it was the people of Egypt who got rid of him, not international diplomacy or pressure.
Clearly, there are changes taking place in the policies of this country and our allies towards the middle east. Several of the things I have referred to in my statement today are changes in policy towards the middle east. On the specifics of the hon. Gentleman’s question about human rights clauses not being observed, there is a case, which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister raised at the recent European Council, for strengthening the conditionality of such clauses and for the European Union’s becoming more insistent on the proper observation of those clauses. We will be discussing that further in the EU.
May I join the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) in welcoming the Foreign Secretary’s visit to Yemen—the first by a British Foreign Secretary since reunification? I am sorry that he was not able to get to Aden on this occasion.
On discussions on poverty and security, I note that it is not this Government who have failed to deliver on our pledges but other donors. Will the Foreign Secretary ensure that they are encouraged to pay up as they have promised to do? On security, we need to do better. It has taken us six months to get one scanner to Sanaa airport, but in order to help defeat al-Qaeda, we need to do things much faster.
We are helping with airport security. The right hon. Gentleman is right about that, but it is not always quite as simple as it may look to put these things in place. On the question of international donations, those donations will be available, provided the international community is convinced that the development and poverty reduction plans are sufficiently detailed and credible, and that we can organise some of the aid through the multi-donor trust fund of which I spoke. There will, I think, be a generous response, provided that those plans are credible. That is what we have to establish at the next meeting of the Friends of Yemen, which I hope will take place within the next couple of months.
It is immensely important that the Foreign Secretary has raised again and has consistently raised the matter of human rights in Iran and the plight of political prisoners. The internationally renowned film maker, Jafar Panahi, has been released from prison but is now facing a further six-year sentence. He has been banned from travelling abroad, even to pick up film awards. He has also been banned from film making for 20 years by the regime. Could the Government add their voice to the calls for freedom for Jafar Panahi and other political prisoners?
Yes, the hon. Gentleman is right to raise that case—one of too many cases. We could make a long list of such cases. It is another example of the unacceptable and arbitrary nature of what passes for justice in that country, so I echo his call. We will pursue that case in the future.
The Foreign Secretary is right when he says that democracy is about more than elections. There are two things that he could do in a concrete way. One he has already done—increase the funding for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. The second is to increase the funding of the World Service, rather than cutting it.
Of course, it would be nice to have the budget to do everything that everybody demanded. As the hon. Lady knows, we do not have the budget to do that. On the World Service and the Arab world, I stress that satellite television is watched almost ubiquitously through the Arab world and was of course much resented by the Egyptian authorities during recent events. That includes the BBC. BBC Arabic is continuing on medium wave, and the shortwave service is being continued for the most sensitive areas in Sudan and the Arabian peninsula, so the BBC will continue to have a very strong representation in the Arab world.
Is it not important that the Egyptians are not cheated of their remarkable victory in the past few days, and that there will be continued pressure for democratic elections to be held and the decisions accepted? May I tell the Foreign Secretary that I have heard successive Foreign Secretaries over many, many years telling us in the Commons about the need for a Palestinian-Israeli settlement, but as long as the settlements on occupied land remain with Israel illegally and continue to be built, is it not clear that there can be no genuine settlement? It is up to the United States above all to put sufficient pressure on Israel to see sense. Possibly the evacuation of the settlements would lead to a settlement.
The settlements are illegal under international law. We are clear about that, and the previous Government were clear about that. There is no question about it. The issue of the settlements can be finally resolved only with a settlement on borders, which in our view, as I said, should be based on 1967 borders, with land swaps. That would have implications for some of those settlements. The United States has made valiant efforts to bring the parties back together on the basis of a continued Israeli moratorium on settlements, but sadly did not succeed in doing so. We all feel strongly about the issue. The hon. Gentleman is right to feel strongly about it. What we now need to find is a practical way to get both parties talking again, and that requires both of them to be ready to make the compromises necessary to do so.
What was the Foreign Secretary’s specific purpose in visiting Bahrain, and did it meet his objectives?
My purpose in visiting Bahrain was to discuss the situation in the region with Bahrain’s leaders, which I did with his Majesty the King, his Royal Highness the Crown Prince, the Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister, so I had extensive discussions—[Interruption.] No, I did not have time for any leisure, despite the aspersions of those on the Opposition Front Bench. I also visited the British maritime component of the military command there, which conducts counter-terrorism and counter-piracy operations, and saw some of the valuable work that our Navy is doing, based in Bahrain. I also met human rights activists there, because the British Government have given a great deal of support to their activity, recognising that many reforms have taken place in Bahrain in recent years, but also that improvements could be made in its human rights record.
Egypt is often seen as the cultural powerhouse in the Arab world, not least because of the production of films and books in Alexandria. What steps can the Government take to promote those valuable cultural activities and so indirectly shine a light on other closed societies in the middle east?
That is a valuable point. I hope that we can do more in the cultural area as we work with that country in the coming months. I hope that we can do more in promoting not only civil society and the building blocks of democracy, but educational and cultural co-operation. That is part of our programme for elevating relationships throughout the middle east, so we will attend to that in this case as well.
The Foreign Secretary last week visited a number of non-democracies for reasons that we understand and that he has set out before the House, but does he feel that in that context, with the benefit of hindsight, it was helpful, sensitive or even fair to describe the democratic state of Israel as belligerent?
I think it right to warn against belligerent language on all sides in this situation and not to describe any country as belligerent, but to warn against that and call for a reinvigoration of the peace process. I think that that was widely appreciated and perfectly well understood in the region.
May I, like many Members on both sides of the House, welcome what the Foreign Secretary said about the basis for a just peace between Israel and Palestine, especially on borders and refugees, although I am not sure about land swaps? I also welcome what he said about the expropriation of funds from Egypt, but will he go a little further, because the Business Secretary said yesterday that he was not aware that Mubarak had substantial assets in the UK? I will tell the Foreign Secretary who does know that: the Egyptian diaspora in this country, who are horrified about criminals coming over from Egypt, and the UK banks. Will he talk with both groups to ensure that we freeze and seize those assets?
I cannot at this point add to what I explained earlier. We cannot do these things on a whim or a suspicion. The Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 requires us to receive a request from another country in order to take action immediately to freeze assets. If we want to initiate an investigation by the Serious Organised Crime Agency, we must have evidence of criminal activity or be faced with some emergency, such as a direct threat to our national security. We must operate within the law, but we are already acting on the request we have received from the Egyptian authorities today and are discussing what we can do more widely across the European Union as a whole, so I am satisfied that at the moment we are doing everything we can on the issue.
The Foreign Secretary is of course right to focus on the potential of the extraordinary change in Egypt to kick-start the middle east peace process, but given the recent comments of the Iranian Foreign Minister and the leader of Hezbollah, what more can Britain do to ensure that Egypt’s future is one of peace towards its neighbours?
I think that we have to do all the things we have discussed over the past hour to support the building of civil society and democracy in Egypt and to fill the moderate, sensible political space so that it is neither fanatical or extremist on the one hand, nor brings more authoritarian government on the other. I think we can fairly conclude that the prime motivation of the people who demonstrated in Egypt was not foreign policy or hostility to other nations, but their seeking of the economic opportunities and political rights that we consider normal in our country. If that is the case, and I think it is, then that is the reason why we should have some faith in the development of openness and democracy in Egypt; and we should do everything we can to support that.