Thursday, 10 February 2011

On Egypt

Despite the media and western governments turning their attention away, the protests in Egypt haven't gone. They're strengthening if anything. As the Independent reports, the protesters have left Tahrir Square and spread out to occupy the surrounding streets as well. They're also occupying the street outside the People's Assembly building. Meanwhile, workers across Egypt have begun to heed the protesters' calls for a strike. The spirit of democracy is live and kicking in Egypt.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for the US and Europe where governments, always hesitant in the first place when it came to the protests, have now moved to a position of supporting Mubarak continuing in power until his term expires - in short, giving the regime plenty of time to dig in and frustrate any meaningful attempts at reform.

But why is this? Why is it that those who were so supportive of the revolutions against communism in eastern Europe in the 80s are now so lukewarm in support of secular, pro-democracy protests in Egypt? Why are western governments content to ignore reports of police using live ammunition against protesters in the New Valley area of Egypt?

Unfortunately, the answer is a cultural prejudice against the muslim world. There remains in most quarters a deep set belief that the Middle East isn't ready for democracy, that muslims will only vote for extremist organisations such as Hamas and that the best thing for the west is that right wing dictators remain in power to keep the perceived threat of Al Qaeda at bay. Come on, admit it. Deep down, you write off the Middle East as a backward place or at least did hold that attitude until recently. I know that I did. And being the moron that I am, I didn't even think to question it. Didn't even think to question the assumption that we were supporting the good guys against Islamist extremists who would otherwise sweep into power and repress women. Well, I, and the west, is wrong.

The majority of the population in the Middle East is under 30. The young people leading these protests don't want theocratic states, they don't want to exchange a secular dictatorship for a religious one. They don't want to oppress women, or homosexuals, they just want to be able to run their own countries without external interference. They just want the right to say what they like without being imprisoned and tortured. They just want to have economies where the wealth isn't hoarded by the elite while the poor starve. In short, all they want, is to live lives not that dissimilar from ours.

Already organisations like Fox News are claiming that the Muslim Brotherhood is behind the protests in Egypt, and that the departure of Mubarak would let them create an Islamic state. This is nonsense. The Muslim Brotherhood is by far the most moderate Islamic political party in the Middle East and are committed (publicly at least) to a democratic state. People in this country tend to make the assumption that Islam and democracy are incompatible when in fact a basic tenet of the original Islamic Caliphate was that the Caliph only held power with the consent of the Shura or the community/will of the people - in short, exactly what the same basic premise of democracy is. This myth we peddle to ourselves is wrong and we should confront this prejudice head on. The people of Egypt have the right to self-determination. We demand it for ourselves so who are we to try and deny it to them?

The irony, of course, of the entire western diplomatic view of the Middle East is that it is counter-productive. The US and Israel, for example, fear a democratic Egypt in case the people vote for an anti-Israeli government. But this is short sighted. Besides the basic fact that the Egyptians are perfectly entitled to pick whichever government they want, there is also one fundamental lesson that history teaches us: democracies do not make war on one another. They may disagree and have disputes with each other but they do not go to war.

In contrast, whenever we have backed "safe" and "friendly" dictators, it has always back-fired on us. Look at Iraq prior to the First Gulf War when the US supported it in its attempts to eradicate the Iranian government. Look at the Shah of Persia who had an army better equipped with British made tanks than the British army itself.

In each case, the dictators we initially supported alienated their own people and either turned against us (as Saddam did) or were overthrown by a people who were hostile to us precisely because of our support for the dictator (such as in Iran).

We should stop being so hypocritical and support democracy. If we'd done that in the first place we probably wouldn't have to worry about Islamic extremism and anti-western sentiment in the Middle East now.

The Egyptian people deserve our support so we should stop pussy-footing about and give it to them.

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