Saturday, 29 January 2011

Water In The Desert

From Mehdi Hasan:

As the protests escalate across Egypt, I have a simple question: on which side are the US and UK governments? The side of the protesters, fighting for their democratic rights and freedoms, or the side of the ageing, corrupt dictator, Hosni Mubarak, and his secret police? The US and UK governments, aided and abetted by the US and UK media, might like us to believe that it is the former, rather than the latter.

But the reality is that Mubarak is in power in Cairo with the west's blessing, approval, support, sponsorship, funding and arms. Democrat and Republican presidents, Labour and Conservative prime ministers, have all cosied up to Egypt's "secular" tyrant, a self-proclaimed but ineffective bulwark against "Islamic extremism", since he assumed the presidency in 1981.

Mubarak might be a son of a bitch but, as the saying goes, he is very much OUR son of a bitch. Some facts to consider:

* Egypt is the one of the biggest recipients of US economic and development assistance - $28 billion since 1975, according to USAID. Only Israel, Pakistan and Afghanistan have received more cash.

* Egypt is the second-biggest recipient (behind Israel) of US military aid - over $1.3 billion a year.

* The US State Department describes Egypt as "a strong military and strategic partner of the United States".

* According to the Federation of American Scientists' Arms Sales Monitoring Project, "the United States sells Egypt a large amount of military equipment and a significant number of small arms; such weaponry is both likely to be used for internal security and difficult to track once sold.

* This is what President Obama said, about the despotic ruler of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, in August 2009: "I am grateful to President Mubarak for his visit, for his willingness to work with us on these critical issues, and to help advance the interest of peace and prosperity around the world." Obama described Mubarak as a "leader and a counselor and a friend to the United States".

* This is what President Bush, that great neoconservative crusader for freedom and democracy in the Middle East, said about Mubarak in April 2004: "I'm pleased to welcome my friend, Hosni Mubarak, to my home. Welcome. I always look forward to visiting with him, and I look forward to hearing his wise counsel... Egypt is a strategic partner of the United States and we value President Mubarak's years of effort on behalf of the peace and stability of the Middle East."

* It's not just the dastardly Yanks who have been playing footsie with Mubarak, his torturers and his secret police. According to the UK's Foreign Office, "the British and Egyptian governments have a strong relationship and share mutual objectives."
* The UK is the largest foreign investor in Egypt.

* Tony Blair, that other great neoconservative crusader for freedom and democracy in the Middle East, visited Egypt with his family on holiday on several occasions, had countless meetings with Mubarak, but never chastised him in the manner that he now chastises, say, the Iranians. Shamefully, Blair, while in office as prime minister of the United Kingdom, allowed Mubarak to pay for his family's luxury holiday at the Red Sea resort of Sham-el-Sheikh in December 2001. Was he worried, I wonder, about the freedom and human rights of political prisoners languishing in Egyptian prisons while he sunned himself in his holiday villa, as a guest of Mubarak's dictatorship?

From Michael Brendan Dougherty:

As I write in snow-covered Westchester, New York fires are breaking out in perhaps a half dozen National Democratic Party headquarters in Egypt. Unfortunately, most of our media and commentators are woefully ignorant of the state of Egypt. But that doesn’t stop them from picking a new leader and rewriting their constitution. Here is Jackson Diehl in today’s Washington Post:

"Mubarak should step down and be replaced by a transitional government, headed by ElBaradei and including representatives of all pro-democracy forces. That government could then spend six months to a year rewriting the constitution, allowing political parties to freely organize and preparing for genuinely democratic elections. Given time to establish themselves, secular forces backed by Egypt’s growing middle class are likely to rise to the top in those elections – not the Islamists that Mubarak portrays as the only alternative."

The whole exercise is galling, considering that Mubarak has been under U.S. sponsorship for decades, and has received strong support even until the last two weeks. Does Diehl think these angry Egyptians want another U.S. crony? But it is worse than that – most of the commentary on Egypt is based on a fantasy that the opposition to Mubarak would naturally be a rights-respecting, pro-market democratic movement.

Four years ago, during some of the headiest days of Bush’s “democracy agenda”, our own State Department officials in Cairo told me that truly liberal parties in Egypt were “interesting to talk to but totally insignificant.” The idea that there is some huge reserve of middle class support for liberal democracy is an untested fantasy. Notice Diehl doesn’t bother to name any of the pro-democracy forces. Does he really believe the New Wafd Party – which has never held more than a few seats - is ready and to lead Egypt? Or does his hope lie with the National Democratic Front which began in 2007? All the elected Egyptian officials over the past two decades who can be fairly described as liberal could fit comfortably in my living room. The reason Diehl wants months for these parties to organize is that the only organized opposition force in Egypt is the Islamists, whom Mubarak has been unsuccessfully trying to appease in the past three years.

Any non-NDP government will include (or be lead by) the anti-American, anti-Israel Muslim Brotherhood, who regularly get a strong percentage of the vote in Egypt, though they are a banned party. Diehl may dream of a secular middle class, but the Brotherhood’s support comes mainly from the professional classes – doctors, lawyers, and other trade associations. The image of Muslim extremists as the poor, disenfranchised and easily-led is another self-flattering Western fantasy. This morning, reports are coming in that the Brotherhood is joining the protests and giving them a distinctively “religious” character.

This is no defense of the NDP or Mubarak. They have had an impossible needle to thread. They could choose to cede some political space to the Muslim Brotherhood and-by definition- lose legitimacy. Or they could continue to repress them and the other small opposition groups and… lose legitimacy.

The fact, rarely mentioned this past week, is that the United States sends over $800 million in direct economic aid to Egypt along with $1.3 billion a year in military aid. The guns being used to beat protestors this week were bought with American tax dollars. Foreign aid to poor countries like Egypt creates both the impression and the reality that the government is more solicitous of its Ameircan sponsor than of its own people. Foreign aid also makes governments less anxious for domestic prosperity, and Egypt’s chronically high unemployment is a sure sign of that. We send this aid to ensure a stable non-Muslim Brotherhood controlled Egypt that is friendly to the United States and Israel. If the riots and protests lead to the fall of Mubarak’s government, we’ll have neither. Egypt is more likely to turn into a base of operations for Al-Queda than it is a liberal democracy. We’ve been making payments on such a disaster since 1975.

In the meantime, prepare to hear more pundits rhapsodize about Elbaradei and the coming reign of righteousness, democracy, and prosperity in Egypt. It is the same tune we heard for Chalabi in Iraq, Karzai in Afghanistan, and free elections in Palestine.

And from Peter Hitchens:

My own experience of Egypt is limited to seeing a demonstration broken up by plainclothes police thugs who later overpowered my photographer colleague Phil Ide and stripped him of thousands of pounds’ worth of equipment (not to mention the fruits of a day's hard work) which he did not recover for many months. Luckily they weren't interested in me at all. These people are above the law and will happily rough up foreigners as well as their 'own' people.

The demonstration, just after Friday prayers in a poor and dusty district of Southern Cairo, was - oddly enough - against the Iraq war. The Egyptian government receives enormous subsidies from the USA (I think around £1,500,000,000 a year, much of it in the form of weapons) in return for maintaining its 'Cold Peace' with Israel, and regards attacks on Washington as attacks on itself.

I spoke to quite a few of the protestors, who were friendly, articulate people of both sexes and all ages, until the state musclemen burst into the cafe where I was and started to arrest them (again, they weren't interested in me).

So I think I can say I have no special fondness for the Mubarak regime. Like every Arab regime I know of, it relies ultimately upon brute force. That brute force defends a system which is extremely corrupt and inefficient, in which free speech, free assembly and the liberty to organise opposition are more or less forbidden, though a sort of token opposition is permitted to function, and its leaders seem surprisingly resigned to spending long periods in the country's unlovely prisons.

But I am amazed at the way in which Western journalists and politicians now seem to be encouraging street protests against that regime. What do they think will happen? Who do they think will benefit? What do they expect the long-term result to be?

Egypt does not have a western-type civil society waiting to step into the gap left when the Mubarak state falls. The most potent opposition movement is the Muslim Brotherhood, and the most popular cause is enraged hatred of the neighbouring State of Israel. Since Egypt is heavily armed and right next to Israel (and Gaza) would it necessarily be a good idea to encourage events which might install an Islamist government in Cairo?

Those who support dissent in Islamic countries really ought to have learned by now that the will of the people in these places is not necessarily in our favour. Western opinion was largely sympathetic to the 1979 rising against the Shah of Persia, until it realised far too late what would replace it. They're all sorry now. A couple of years ago a great deal of sentimental tosh was talked about a wave of democracy in the Middle East, supposedly comparable to the peaceful overthrow of Soviet-backed regimes in eastern Europe in 1989. This was supposedly inspired by the 'success' of our imposition of a Shia majority government in Iraq, a story which has not yet reached its end and which will not – I here predict - end happily.

Much gush was penned and spoken about a 'Cedar Tree' Revolution' in Lebanon, which was boldly rejecting the sinister presence of Syria on its territory, etc etc. I sighed when I heard this, as I sigh when I hear the current wave of enthusiasm for events in Tunisia and Egypt. And I was right to sigh, for Lebanon is now under the control of a Hizbollah government, closer than ever to Syria (and to Iran) and silly dreams of a new dawn are all dissipated, as they were bound to be.

Otto von Bismarck is supposed to have said that if you enjoyed either sausages or politics you should make sure you never saw either of them being made. The same is true of diplomacy. If you don't like propping up nasty regimes, don't go in for foreign policy. The only genuine and serious conclusion, for those who truly want to make the world a better place, is to pursue a policy of enlightened imperialism. But is this realistic? Ask yourself a few questions? Are you convinced enough of the superiority of our civilisation to feel you have the moral right to impose it on others by force? Think we can afford it? Fancy serving in the enormous armed forces necessary to impose it, or paying the huge taxes needed to finance those forces, or allowing your relatives to be conscripted into those forces? Are you prepared to stay forever?

If the answer to any of these questions is 'no', then please be so kind as to stop pretending to care about the woes of the Third World. You don't mean it. You're trying to make yourself feel good, not to do good.

Meanwhile the best motto for dealing with nasty regimes in the Middle East remains, as it always was, Hilaire Belloc's words: ‘Always keep a hold of nurse, for fear of finding something worse.’ Literary types will know what happened to poor Jim, who ignored this sensible advice. He was devoured ('slowly eaten, bit by bit, no wonder Jim detested it') by a Lion.

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