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Thursday, 3 February 2011

The West and Egypt

Since the protests in Egypt began (even earlier, since the protests in Tunisia started) I have watched with fascination as thousands of ordinary people have taken to the streets to say that they have had enough. Enough of corruption, enough of oppression. We have seen people finally surmount their fear of reprisals, overcome the enforced conformity and discover the strength and power of their own decency and courage. And we are witnesses to an ongoing drama in which ordinary people, with different backgrounds, education, political and religious views unite to try to claim their countries, their future for themselves.

I heard one commentator speak yesterday evening of the “Arab 1989.” For someone who has been a resident of Germany for twenty-five years, this image brings back memories. Memories of people on the streets of Leipzig and other East German cities chanting, “Wir sind das Volk, we are the people,” memories of jubilant crowds dancing on the Berlin Wall. But also memories of a single man standing before a row of tanks on Tienanmen Square. That was 1989 too. At the moment, watching Egypt, both pictures are still possible. I know which result I hope for. Watching Western politicians and diplomats linguistically squirming, I tend to wonder what they really want.

I am an ordinary Western European, citizen of one country, resident in another. As an ordinary Western European, I have concerns about the role of Islam in our modern world, and suspicions about the attitudes of many who represent what is called “political Islam.” I have questions about the willingness of many Islamic intellectuals and spiritual leaders to accept the basic principles of the Enlightenment which I regard as the basis of many of the values in which I believe and which I see as a genuine progress in the history of human affairs; values which, for example, led to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But at the same time, I see that what the protestors in Tahrir Square are seeking for themselves and their country are the very rights described in that Declaration, and it is irrelevant whether they are Muslims (whether fundamentalist, conservative or liberal), Christians or secularists (in fact, people of all these views can be found among the demonstrators).

As a resident of Germany and a product of Christian European culture, I cannot but be aware of the particular issues relating to the security of the State of Israel, its historical roots and their meaning. That regime change in Egypt – since the Camp David agreement between Sadat and Begin, one of the few of Israel’s neighbours formally at peace with her – may create increased tension for Israel is a possibility which cannot be ignored. But this possibility is by no means certain and is part of a future still to come. The wishes of the people of Egypt for freedom and democracy and their courage in demanding these rights are now.

As one who lives in one of the richest countries in the world, I am not so na├»ve as to be unaware that a significant amount of the goods, particularly oil, which are traded globally, which are part of that whole complex mechanism which guarantees my standard of living, is moved through the Suez Canal. I can accept that stability in the country through which the Suez Canal passes is important for the whole world. But this is, perhaps, where we must begin if we are to understand the position “the West,” that part of the world which massively dominated the rest for the whole of the 20th Century and still retains massive wealth and power, has taken with regard to Egypt.

For all sorts of reasons – its history, its large population, its economy, its pivotal position in the Arab-Islamic world, the canal – Egypt has always been a country of strategic geo-political importance. From the times of Alexander and Caesar the control of Egypt was vital; even earlier Egypt itself was a “world power.” The ill-conceived adventure known as The Suez Affair in the fifties signalled the final end of British and French global imperial power. After Sadat abandoned his predecessor Nasser’s alliance with the Soviet Union and positioned Egypt firmly in the western camp, it became an axiom of western diplomatic orthodoxy that a pro-western government in Egypt was a matter of prime strategic importance. And this is the reason why the West, above all the USA, has been prepared to support the Mubarak regime for the past thirty years.

It is the doctrine of the primacy of interest above principle, of Realpolitik above morality which still, unfortunately, dominates the relations of states worldwide, following Palmerston’s old adage, "Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests." The permanent interests of peace between Israel and Egypt, erecting a bulwark against radical Islam (a western fear Mubarak exploited very well) and, above all, securing the Suez Canal took precedence over any principles regarding freedom, democracy, human rights or common decency. And now that the people of Egypt, with inspiring courage, have come onto the streets to claim their country for themselves, the west is finally being presented with the bill for its lack of principles.

I saw a young protester on TV a few days ago. Asked about the West, she said, “We expect nothing from the West. The tear-gas canisters they are throwing at us have ‘Made in the USA’ written on them.” The young woman, dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, her head bare, was certainly not a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. Self-confident, obviously well-educated, probably a student, she belonged to that group of people one would normally expect to incline towards pro-western views. Generation Facebook.

The way things are going, events will probably have overtaken this essay by the time I have posted it. Yesterday and today, pro-Mubarak thugs have attacked the demonstrators, shots have been fired in Cairo and Alexandria, people have died. Tomorrow, following the Friday prayers, there will probably be hundreds of thousands once more in Tahrir Square. What happens then depends on how the army (the real deciding power in Egypt, well nourished on $ 1.3 billion of US aid annually) behaves. It could be Tienanmen Square; I fervently hope it will be Berlin.

But this evening the future of Egypt is still in the balance. As little as it is worth, I feel I have to add the tiny weight of this blog to all the hundreds of thousands of other voices calling today on the political leaders of the West – Chancellor Merkel, Prime Minister Cameron, President Sarkozy, President Obama, even Taoiseach Brian Cowan in his last few sorry weeks in power in my native Ireland. Represent the people who elected you, stand up for the principles which are claimed as the basis for the societies you lead; freedom, democracy, human rights.

Tell Mubarak to go. Now. If necessary, send a jet to collect him. It would be nice to think that at some stage in the future he might be brought to account for various things for which he was responsible in Egypt, but at the moment it is more important that he simply get out. If pressure needs to be exerted, exert it. Withdraw all support, cut military aid, freeze bank accounts. Show the Egyptian people that the world is on their side, that your countries are on their side. Help the opposition in every way possible to organise an interim government and fair and free elections. And accept the result of those elections and work with whatever government of Egypt emerges from them. It is much too late to convince the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators on the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and Suez that you are on their side. But it is never too late to make a start.

And while you are at it, maybe think about what your adherence to the Palmerston principle has brought you. In Iran in 1979. In Iraq with Saddam Hussein. And today in Egypt. The global political climate in our time is often described as a conflict of ideologies, one between a vision of society organised on the basis of freedom, pluralism, democracy and human rights and an alternative based on a controversial interpretation of a religious world view – a Taliban version of the Sharia. This may be, probably is, far too simplistic. But what chance can the vision proclaimed by the West have when its practical actions consistently deny it? The gulf between what the West preaches and what it practices can only be described as schizophrenic, and this schizophrenia, as well as destroying Western credibility in the rest of the world, will also destroy Western society itself if we do not face it. In individuals, schizophrenia, if untreated, leads to total loss of reality and the disintegration of the personality. Often, in the end, to suicide. I don’t think that nations and societies are all that different.


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