Saturday, 5 February 2011

The Danger of the Danger of Islamism.

There is a fair amount of talk on the internet and on some news channels about the dangers to Israel, and thus to the stability of the Middle East, of an Islamist government in Egypt. People are concerned that if the secular but brutally oppressive regime of the National Democratic Party* is toppled then it will be replaced by a hardline Iran-style Islamist theocracy which will refuse to recognise Israel and bring to bear the considerable might of Egypt's military on the fragile Jewish homeland. This is held up as a reason to prop up Mubarak, or at least to allow a chosen successor to replace him. This fear of the "danger of Islamism" is rooted in a good intention, to protect the closest thing the Middle East has to a democracy and support peace. There's just one minor flaw in the plan; it's complete bollocks.

Point one to note, the protests are not Islamist, sure the people protesting are Muslims, but in the same way that people at protests in America are Christians; almost everybody there is. There is an Islamist party, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), among the opposition, indeed they form the largest part of the previously elected opposition (this year's sham of a parliamentary election saw them banned as a party and the candidates intimidated and threatened when they ran as independents). This protest movement is not led by them, and for the large part it is not really their supporters on the streets. The MB has a support base largely among the middle aged (similar to the Tea Party, I guess at a certain stage of life politicians talking of golden ages and a return to core values begins to appeal), this is not who is out on the streets. The protests are led by young people who have been exposed to (largely western) deals of democracy, freedom and justice through Twitter and Facebook and Blogs; who have seen the cruel injustices of their government highlighted by Amnesty International and HRW and exposed by Wikileaks. Democracy is an infectious disease and it spreads through information. The calls on the streets are not for Islamic righteousness but for democracy and freedom, the popular figurehead is not an aging cleric but a scientist and diplomat who has done great work on behalf of the entire world in the field of nuclear non-proliferation and whose main problem with Israel is their refusal to join the NPT.

It is true that a democratic Egypt could elect an Islamist party, but such a party working within the framework of democracy would not be in a position to threaten Israel all that much, and the reason is accountability. A democratic government must justify its actions to the people; it is hard (as many politicians have found) to win elections when sacrificing the lives of people's husbands, sons, brothers and fathers into a war of aggression. People vote with their pocketbooks to the extent that even maintaining a military stand-off can be fatal to re-election chances, when people pay taxes they want that money pent on roads, schools, hospitals, police and just enough military power to sleep securely at night, dozens of battalions pointing their guns over the border seems like extravagance. A democratic Egypt may not be as willing to support every action of the USA or the UK as is Mubarak, but the people will be free, self-determinism is a concept introduced to the world by America, and it is a dear one to me, a moral "red line" that I do not feel we should cross. I would rather have the conditional support of a free people than the unwavering obedience of a dictator.

Israel also stands to gain from the domino effect that spread protests from Tunisia to Egypt. If a democratic rule took hold in Egypt it could spread still further. Already King Hussein of Jordan has changed his government. If he is serious about his job security he should give the elected parliament the powers to go with it's impressively fair elections, when democracy is spreading, the history of Europe tells us, constitutional monarchs become cherished, absolute monarchs become corpses. Jordan is at least a relatively just country, and one that has worked hard for peace in the region. The real jewel in the crown would be Syria. A democratic Syria would seal peace for the region, surrounded by democracy Hamas and Hezbollah would have few friends for the violent approach to Israel, and a two-democratic-state solution would have a fair chance of success.

Democracy in Egypt is the jumping off point for democracy throughout the Arab Mediterranean. Democracy in the Middle east is the key to peace in the Middle East.

*national, sure, but democratic they ain't and living under them doesn't seem like a party

Friday, 28 January 2011

Egypt in Pictures

Some fantastic shots here I've always admired those photo-journalists and cameramen who are willing to put themselves in harms way to get information and evocotive images to accompany it.

I just wish people tould remember Martin Luther King's observation
"It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence; it's nonviolence or nonexistence"

Why Egypt Matters.

The news is full of Egypt, and it's got my interest up (so far up in fact I've started using Twitter ( @OverHimself). You could ask why I should care, I'm a hell of a long way from Cairo, living in my safe democracy and totally unaffected by Egyption politics. Only I'm not.

Well, OK, I am those first two, but I'm not unaffected, and in more than just a John Donne "no man is an island" way. The largest part of UK and US foreign policy in recent years is focused on an area from Libya to Pakistan, add in the worries in the Home Office around arab-led, islamist motivated terrorism, and the interdependence created by global trade and this is all of our business. We get to take sides.

My horse, and I just hope she lives up to her form, is with people power. Mubarak and his party have ruled Egypt for 30 years. They have ruled under emergency law for most of that time; they have fixed elections and banned opposition parties and cracked down on dissent. They have provided stability and a degree of economic success. It's the old trade off, freedom from (poverty, hunger etc) at the cost of freedom to (speak, act, protest etc), and that is why the word bread is key in protesters' chants, once you stop providing the one, people will demand the other. The power of people protest is huge, and as I type this various sources are suggesting the government may have fallen.

If true this is a massive leap forward. The victory will belong to the people of Egypt, not to the Muslim Brotherhood, or other groups whose direction comes from Mecca and whose sympathy lies with Al Qaeda. The young, hopeful-looking protesters are talking of democracy and freedom, led by their experience and contact online with citizens of liberal democracies. It will shake up the region. The stabilizing effect of a relativly moderate and benign dictatorship in Egypt has probably prevented wars and moderated intifadas in Israel and Palestine. A democratic Egypt may not have this effect at first. But Angela Merkel had it right, the stability of Egypt is important, but not at the expense of the freedom of Egyptians.

A liberal democracy may not be as reliable a friend as a pocket dictatorship, but in the long run I would rather have a democracy who disagrees with us than a dictatorship always at our side. Democracy tends to moderate policy, it tends to allow rationality a stronger voice, diversity, culture, interaction and peace are all cherished more in democracies, where they are needed than in dictatorships where they can be replaced by a poster of the president. And democracy spreads. Democracy in Egypt could lead to democracy in Jordan, in Syria, in Libya, if all of those happens, even the House of Saud might be shifting uncomfortably in their thrones. And that would give us a more stable, more peaceful, more free world.