No one can have watched the events in the Arab world unfolding this month and not been moved by the sight of spontaneous uprisings, people power, and the fall of corrupt and authoritarian regimes.
I had not paid such keen attention to the news in as long as I can remember as over those 18 days in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, as 30 years of Egyptian anger and resentment boiled over and forced out the deeply unpopular president Gamal Mubarak. To see the running battles in the streets, the bravery and sheer bloody-blindedness of the protesters in the face of police violence, thugs, beatings and live ammunition used on unarmed civilians was extraordinary. To see that it worked, in some fashion, is more extraordinary still.
That a committee of military generals should be welcomed over an elected government, albeit one elected in a discredited poll, demonstrates the depth of disgust at Mubarak’s ‘revolutionary’ regime. It also shows Egypt’s unusual relationship with its army, no doubt made up itself of young conscripts not far in attitude from the protesters themselves. I was moved by the army’s statement early on that they would not fire on protesters. But the reports of army arrests of journalists and activists, of secret beatings and intimidation, and the troops’ failure to intervene between pro-Mubarak thugs and protesters revealed that everything is not as it seems. The army has an agenda of its own, and clearly decided that remaining popular — practically sanctified — in the eyes of the people was more important that backing Mubarak, whose position looked less credible by the day.
The wave of dissent has crashed down upon the sandy beaches of Libya, Algeria, Bahrain and Morocco. Whether Egypt’s neighbours can wrench freedom from their dictators’ hands remains to be seen, but even if this is possible, the true test lies in winning not the battle, but the peace that follows. The North African states historically have little in the way of civic society institutions to turn to, and those that exist are often severely compromised. They have their work cut out for them to build a new society, and the world will watch with keen interest at what follows.
What is readily apparent is how, as Libya too begins to crumble and burn, the extraordinary hypocrisy of the West is laid bare. Gaddafi’s status as a pariah was unshakable in the years since Pan Am flight 103, the shooting of PC Yvonne Fletcher, and supplying arms to the IRA. And yet suddenly in 2007 Tony Blair is shaking the deranged octogenarian’s hand in a desert tent. The quid pro quo was that BP got its hands on Libyan oil, Gaddafi got his hands on British weapons, and the Libyan people, despite empty promises to the contrary, continued to enjoy the absence of civic freedoms they had become accustomed to since he took power in 1969.
The US gave more than $1bn a year to fund Mubarak’s army and militias — around $50bn since 1979 — and Tunisia’s ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was also the benefactor of American largess in respect of millions of dollars of military aid and sales. In Obama’s inauguration speech he said to “those who cling to power through corruption and deceit” that he was willing to “extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist”. Instead, American interests were best served my armouring that fist further. Both the UK and US have spent millions — whether legally or illegally — to win favour for military contracts in Saudi Arabia, one of the worlds most oppressive, conservative regimes, and still an absolute monarchy in the 21st century.
Britain, Europe and America already find it to their advantage to support weak or sham democracies such as in Algeria and Egypt, or the absolute rule of sheiks and kings in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The government, by bringing Gaddafi into the fold alongside all the other authoritarian rules in the Middle East that already enjoy the tacit or explicit support of the West, ended the only principled bit of foreign policy in the region.
It has been a century in which the West’s approach to the Middle East is stained by the most blinding hypocrisy: from the betrayal of the leaders of the Arab Revolt in 1916, to the partition of the Middle East and ousting of elected civilian governments for despots, as in Iran in 1953, to the policy volt face that saw first Iran and then the Iraq armed against the other as the winds changed. The West has always found a way to support the region’s murderous dictators in defence of a status quo that suited it, all the while espousing democracy and civic freedoms that we knew to be illusionary.
So really it should come as no surprise to find that scant days after Mubarak is ejected in favour of Egypt’s generals, our prime minister is quick to make a visit. Not only to congratulate the country on it’s new found freedom, but for Cameron to drop by in the company of Britain’s finest arms manufacturers to try and drum up some sales.
Democracies have a right to defend themselves, he retorted — which of the countries in the Middle East might he have considered truly democratic? It has barely been a week since British and American-made weapons stopped killing people on the streets of Cairo. Today, they’re still in use in Tripoli.
Perhaps the Arab world — their people, if not their governments — would be wise to find their own path to democracy, and sculpt their institutions in their own fashion rather than looking for guidance from Britain, America, and Europe — countries frequently so morally bankrupt that they will back both sides at once while at the same time selling them the means to kill their own, or each other.