To call the revolutionary rumblings currently transfiguring the Arab world ‘unexpected’ is to be both platitudinous and grotesquely understated. It is abundantly clear that Western leaders in particular had neither anticipated the sudden overthrow of the Tunisian regime by popular protest, nor foreseen the current Egyptian uprising. They seem as taken aback and unprepared for this spontaneous surge for liberty as Ben Ali and Mubarek. Watching the range of reactions to the Arabian uprisings, and Western governments scrabbling to recalibrate their positions, provides a salutary lesson in the language game we call geo-politics.
The reaction from the populace has been broadly optimistic. A recent Gallup poll found strong bipartisan support for the Egyptian uprising among Americans, 82% of whom said they felt “sympathetic” towards the protesters. I’d be surprised if polling in this country produced a wildly dissimilar result. Moved by the scenes of bodies thronging Tahrir Square, and the infectious sense of a meaningful transformation in the balance of power, it seems the sense of solidarity that many felt – and still feel – unable to extend to those Afghans and Iraqis who want to build a more civil society has latently shown itself in an outpouring of support for the Egyptian cause.
This optimism, though, has been tempered and qualified by the more conservative-minded, who display the Burkeian caution that is their natural inclination. While optimists compare Egypt 2011 to Poland 1989, commentators of a more pessimistic bent point to France 1789, Russia 1917, and – especially – Iran 1979. Leaving aside the fact that each of these revolutions was subject to their own set of unique historical circumstances, it is right to flag up the past in this way. It is, after all, our only guide. Revolutions, as we all know, often start with the most noble of ideals but are as likely to produce their catastrophic opposite as they are a free people. At the time of writing Mubarek is still in power, and it is not at all clear to me that Tunisia has yet made the successful transition from tyranny to liberal democracy. While we are evidently witnessing a seminal moment in the history of the modern Arab world, whether this moment will ultimately prove beneficial or detrimental to its people is, at this stage, unknowable. Elsewhere the language of realpolitik gives ballast to this caution: while Mubarek was undoubtedly a dictator who presided over a corrupt and brutal regime, this regime was secular, a Western ally, and had made peace with Israel. It was also, when compared to other Arab states, relatively stable, open and permissive. Mubarek is not Saddam: Egypt is not Iraq.
While there’s something to all these points, I can’t help feeling they miss something as well. For a start, though we know revolution has often been bad for the world, there is no predetermined outcome to history. While there is only one past, there remain multiple futures, and it doesn’t take too much to envisage the emergence of a broadly secular and democratic Egypt, for precisely the reasons that make the country not Iraq. If these protests do give birth to Egyptian democracy, then that birth certainly has the potential to be less painful and contracted than those in Iraq and Afghanistan. If we are to remember the blood and terror of 1789, 1917, or 1979, then perhaps we should also find time to recall the successes of 1688, 1776, or, indeed, 1989.
Secondly, it is not at all clear to me that fear of future outcomes is a good reason for maintaining a repressive status quo, unless you know for sure that the alternative will be worse, which of course nobody does. Red Terror does not retrospectively absolve the excesses of Tzarism, anymore than Jacobinism confers moral authority upon the Ancien Régime. Fear is the legitimising psychological component of all repressive regimes. “The greatest tool in the arms of the oppressor,” said Steve Biko, “is the mind of the oppressed.” The West has supported its ‘strongman’ in Egypt, and averted its gaze from his regime’s brutal side, largely because Mubarek appeared to be all that was standing between us and the Islamist theocrats of the Muslim Brotherhood. In buying into the idea that any alternative to Mubarek is a worse alternative, western powers have inadvertently helped legitimise his rule, and played a part in allowing the repression to continue.
Those who invoke the dark spectre of the Iranian revolution are doing so largely with the Brotherhood in mind. Here was a revolution many welcomed, one that began with the overthrow of a hated regime and with high hopes for democracy, before the emergence of an Islamic theocracy that made the Shar look like the height of enlightened rule. They are right to warn of the threat. This is the organisation, after all, that gave birth to modern Islamism. Sayyid Qutb, the most influential ideologue of jihadi-salafist terrorism, emerged from their ranks. His preaching and his ‘martyrdom’ provide grist for the Islamist mill still. After those under Qutb’s influence murdered Anwar Sadat, Mubarek rounded up hundreds of Brotherhood members, among them Ayman al-Zawahiri, who later became al Qaeda’s number two.
There is no doubt, in my mind, what kind of society the Muslim Brotherhood envisage for the post-Mubarek era, and it is right to shudder at the prospect of their seizing power. Nonetheless, our most immediate fears ought to be tempered by the thought that this protest – like those in Iran and Tunisia – seems to be the manifestation of a young disenfranchised middle-class, rather than an Islamist underclass. Those in Tahrir Square look less like Zawahiri, to put it another way, and more like you and me. The cries of Allahu akba echoing around Cairo are not accompanied by the flag-burning and cries of ‘death to America’ or ‘death to Israel’ one would expect if this uprising was Islamist led, inspired or motivated. Nor is there an obvious Ayatollah figure, though one may emerge in time. The Brotherhood, in fact, seemed to be as caught out by the pace of events as everybody else. Corruption, economic turmoil, and political exclusion are what bought the protesters onto the streets, not jihad. There seems to me to be nothing swinish about Egypt’s multitudes.
Thirdly, ‘realist’ notions of Mubarek being ‘our son-of-a-bitch’ fail to take into account the degree to which, rather than keeping a lid on the threat from Islamic extremism, Mubarek’s continued rule has exacerbated the problem. The excessive brutality of repeated attempts to stamp out the Brotherhood by successive Egyptian regimes often proved counter-productive, radicalising the constituency and hardening the ideology simultaneously. Qutb emerged from Nasser’s torture chambers having written his masterpiece and with the zeal of one who had glimpsed the (capitalised) Truth. Zawahiri likewise emerged from prison galvanised by the experience, and went off to fight the Afghan jihad, where he met a certain Osama Bin-Laden. For both, imprisonment had told the truth of the Egyptian state, and, by extension, the endemic corruption of the Arab world’s secular rulers. It is fair to say that if this wave of protests does bring about positive change in the Arab world – big if I know – one of the main radicalising elements in the region – the oppressive nature of the regimes there – will have been removed. Although the Muslim Brotherhood are spoken of as the ‘second biggest opposition party’ in Egypt, that is because Egypt has, up until now, had no political parties to speak of. Ironically, we have no way of knowing how large the Brotherhood’s membership is, or how deep its pool of supporters, precisely because of their banned and underground status. In a free and fair election they are bound to win votes, but there is good reason to believe that it wont win the majority of them.
Lastly, if the protests have shown us anything, it is that the supposed ‘stability’ offered us by Mubarek was something of a chimera all along. It was convenient for the West to deal pragmatically with Egypt while it faced more pressing issues elsewhere in the region. Yet the fundamental flaw with such realpolitik is that dictatorship – no matter how benign – is always an inherently unstable system, not least because it can only be bought to an end by war or revolution. In a democracy, by contrast, the blood-letting of regime change is symbolic, though no less meaningful. A government that is amenable to the will of its people will always offer a greater chance of growth and stability over a people subject to the will of an unaccountable state. No two democracies have ever gone to war against each other. This should tell us something about its desirability as a system of political organisation, and imply the price that is paid tolerating tyranny.
Watching our dear leaders responding to the unfolding crisis has been an illuminating exercise in the ignoble art of diplomatic tight-rope walking. On the one hand they couldn’t be seen calling for an important ally to fall on his sword, on the other, they had to be seen to respond positively to the cries from the Arab street, as they were ostensibly calling for those things that we in the west say we stand for – democracy, human rights, the rule of law. Early on Obama called only for “political, social, [and] economic reform.” By the first of the month he was calling for an “orderly transition” of power. A few days later, he was urging Mubarek to “start a transition now.” The rhetoric has hardened, but at no point has he or his administration directly and unambiguously called for Mubarek to follow the protesters’ wishes and stand down immediately.
Such hedging has characterised the British response also. Asked by Andrew Marr whether he thought Mubarek should go, Foreign Secretary William Hague replied that we had, “no right to choose Egypt’s president.” It was an answer that typified his approach to the crisis. He seemed bent on appearing as vague and non-committal as sense would allow, using the “orderly transition” line to cover a multitude of non-answers, and even refusing, when given the chance, to offer a direct statement of solidarity with the protesters. Of course, no one is suggesting we should have the right to choose Egypt’s president. We do, on the other hand, have a moral duty to insist upon the right of Egyptians to be able to choose their president; a right that can, by definition, only begin to be exercised once the dictator has left the building. Not the same thing at all. David Cameron, to his credit, has been far more decisive in his language. During last week’s eerily intelligent and cordial PMQs he said of the move to democracy in Egypt that it must be: “rapid and credible and it needs to start now.” He even went as far as offering this: “We should be clear. We stand with those in this country who want freedom, who want democracy, and rights…That should always be our view.” (Though he again stopped short of asking that the protester’s key demand – that Mubarek leave – be observed.)
The fact that this hasn’t – to put it charitably – “always” been “our view” is nowhere more obvious than in our ambiguous relationship with Mubarek. The west says it is for freedom and democracy, yet all too often it is willing to compromise these principles for a ‘stability’ that is temporary at best, and at worst completely illusory.
At the time of writing Mubarek seems determined to cling on till at least September, and the protesters show no signs of compromising on their key demand. Such a stalemate cannot be expected to last for long. If this revolution turns bloody, how will the west react? In such a struggle we shall have to choose, and there seems to me to be only one side for the morally and intellectually serious person to be on. What does it say about our commitment to the core principles of human rights and democracy that faced with a region wide uprising in the name of these values, our elected leaders equivocated and hesitated, fearing the worst of the mob and appealing to the best of the dictator? Egypt – by which I mean the people of Egypt – need our support more than ever. It is time for the west to say what it means, and mean what it says.
Addendum: today – Fri 11 Feburary 2011 – Mubarek decided to step down as President of Egypt, ending 30 years of rule and proving, as if proof were needed, that events will always outpace our ability to comprehend them.