Before you celebrate the Middle East's 'freedom agenda' remember 1917.
25 February, 2011
Watching reports of mass protest across the Middle East, it is tempting to get misty eyed. The popular belief, spread by Western media outlets and supported by much of our political class, is that the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya are part of a regional protest fuelled by people power, all in the name of human rights and democracy. Twitter and Facebook, the twin pillars of Western technology, are being lauded as the new global medium for change. The removal of one regime after another has been likened to the collapse of autocracy in Eastern Europe in 1989. This, some say, is Arabia's 'velvet revolution'.
There is a degree of truth in all of this. It seems that Bernard Lewis was right when he talked of 'a common theme of anger and resentment' fulled by a 'greater awareness that they (the Arabs) have, thanks to modern media and modern communications, of the difference between their situation and the situation in other parts of the world.' The differences are partly economic. Untold millions in the Arab world live in a type of chronic poverty that is scarcely found in the West and their misery is compounded by an intolerable lack of political liberty. For many, these protests do have a freedom agenda - freedom from the autocratic governments that have long ruled them with an iron fist. So it is tempting to jump on the bandwaggon, inspired by street revolutions with a seemingly unstoppable momentum.
But we ought to remember the adage about being careful what we wish for. The revolutions of 1917 in Russia and 1979 in Iran replaced Tsarist and monarchical tyrannies (respectively) with communist and theocratic ones. Both Lenin and Khomeini calibrated their language in order to tap into the deep rooted and widespread discontent with the prevailing regimes. Indeed Khomeini had long been a thorn in the side of the Shah. Both men were also careful to hide their anti democratic agendas and totalitarian ideologies. In Lenin's case, he swiftly closed down the Russian Parliament, suspended elections and instituted the bloody rule of the Cheka. Thousands of dissidents were slaughtered in the aftermath; millions more in the following years. We should be wary about forgetting the bloody outcome of popular upheaval. What starts in utopian idealism often ends in medieval savagery.
In Egypt, the departure of the 'pharoah' has been quickly followed by the arrival in Cairo of Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi. Qaradawi is perhaps the most articulate and well known voice of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world. His views on Islam, women, homosexuality and terrorism should strike fear into any genuine believer in liberal government. Yet his speech in Cairo was greeted by a huge crowd in Tahrir Square, many of whom might well see him as the spiritual leader of a new (Islamist) government.
In Bahrain, an important US ally, a popular Shia revolt could yet result in a pro Iranian enclave being created in the Gulf. To the west of Bahrain, a popular revolt against the ruling House of Saud (not inconceivable) would surely have a major impact on oil prices, which would further destabilise an already fragile world economy. The security of energy supplies has long been a key plank of US foreign policy in the Middle East and upheaval in both nations would put those supplies in some danger. Libya, for all the bloodshed we have witnessed in recent days, is a virtual sideshow compared to the potential upheaval in these three places.
Surveying all these events is the ominous omnipresence of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Events in recent days give us worrying signs of just how far Tehran feels empowered by the region's upheaval. First, Hamas launched a Grad rocket into Beersheba for the first time in 2 years. At the same time, Tehran ordered two ships into the Suez Canal, an action not seen for three decades, and found that there was no resistance to its actions. If these ships were carrying vital weaponry to Syria and Hezbullah, then its actions were sending an unmistakeable message to other pro Western regimes, and the US. Iran feels it is now a regional top dog and will not hesitate to assert itself when necessary.
Amid this ferment, Israel's stable democracy stands strong and proud. Its leaders have taken a more lukewarm attitude towards this Arabian 'moment', perhaps because they sense that grave uncertainty lies just around the corner. As Charles Moore says in today's Telegraph:
Where they (the Israelis) are profoundly unlike us, though, is that their attention to the subject is perpetual, because their lives literally depend on it. They don't just have fun at the party: they are there for the morning after the night before. To change the metaphor, we in the West are like tourists in Middle East politics: we see something interesting, focus with our zoom lens, frame a pretty picture, and depart. The Israelis, by contrast, watch with 24-hour CCTV.
Indeed he is right. Some commentators declare that there is little cause for alarm. We should all join in the fun, praise the freedom agenda and celebrate the removal of tyrants. But pause for a minute and remember Russia and Iran in the heyday of their revolutions. It was the tyranny that followed those revolutions that stayed longest in the memory.top
Iran's revolutionary exports are inauspicious
17 February, 2011
As I am on holiday for several days, posts will be unlikely until the beginning of March.
The convulsions that have hit Bahrain in recent days, and which have been met with the full force of the regime's tanks and soldiers, have reportedly been stirred by Tehran. This would not be surprising. The Iranian regime has long claimed that Bahrain is part of the ancient Persian empire. Retaking it for the ayatollahs is seen as redressing a historical injustice.
In addition, the small oil rich kingdom has a Shia population which has some legitimate grievances. The Shia form a majority in Bahrain yet are barred from constituting a political majority. Power lies in the hands of the long serving Prime Minister, not Parliament. This Shia majority could be stirred up by Iran which is naturally desperate to see its fundamentalist revolution exported to every quarter of the region. And Bahrain's rulers fear a Shia uprising so strongly that they are prepared to use maximum force to suppress it. They know that a Shia revolution in one Gulf state could spread to other countries with big Shia populations, creating a domino effect that could see Iran emerge as the Gulf's dominant power.
Why are the Iranians so emboldened right now? There are a few possible answers. In January, Lebanon's pro American PM, Sa'ad Hariri, was toppled by Hezbullah. The Hezbullah coup was timed for Hariri's visit to the White House and Washington's response was fairly tepid. In effect, the Iranian backed Hezbullah strengthened their grip on the country overnight. Then Tehran saw the US abandon yet another key ally when Washington called (in effect) for Mubarak to resign.
The removal of this Sunni strongman has left the path open for the creation of an Islamist regime, led by the Muslim Brotherhood. Such a regime, while theoretically hostile to Shia Iran, could reach some bargain with the country, perhaps through supporting certain key terrorist groups like Hamas. Meanwhile, anti Iranian sanctions are unlikely to be tightened, at least by any global accord. In February this year, Sergey Lavrov decried the extension of any further sanctions targeting the Iranian economy. He is likely to be joined in his calls by politicians in China. For various reasons then, the Iranian regime feels it is in the ascendancy at the moment.
It is difficult to know the outcome of the protests sweeping the Middle East from Tunisia to the Gulf. But if one thing is certain it is that Iran will be watching events very carefully, and meddling wherever possible to enhance its interests.top
Parliament's futile gesture...
11 February, 2011
Don't be fooled by today's 'historic' Commons vote against allowing prisoners the vote. It is in all probability neither historic nor groundbreaking. It is most likely to be a good PR exercise for David Cameron in the face of a muscular challenge from his party's Eurosceptics.
The issue is simple enough. Parliament (nearly half of our MPs) is overwhelmingly against allowing prisoners to vote, in defiance of a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights. MPs have justly stated that once you commit serious crimes and enter prison, you cannot claim the same rights as you had before, including the right to vote. You have absented yourself, albeit temporarily, from being a part of civilised society. If you break current laws, you cannot have a say in who gets to make new ones.
But this vote changes little. The ECHR has given Britain until August to accept its ruling or else face sanctions. In all probability a raft of prisoners, using well paid human rights lawyers, will submit a welter of compensation claims if they are denied the vote. This will cost taxpayers many millions of pounds and create a vast number of unsavoury headlines. The government will feel bound to submit to the will of the European Court (or the ECJ), particularly after the previous government's craven surrender over the Lisbon treaty.
Of course, I may be mistaken. Perhaps this will be the start of the long awaited fightback, the moment when the people's representatives make a concerted effort to wrest back control of our lives from Brussels bureaucrats. Perhaps this is a turning point for the Tories too, the traditional defenders of Parliamentary sovereignty. I very much doubt it. Does Cameron really want to risk a rupture with Mr. Clegg and his Europhile Lib Democrats? Does he want to risk splitting the Tory party over this explosive issue? I think we all know the answer to those two questions.
A retrospective posture of Parliamentary defiance doesn't fool anybody. Our political and judicial powers have long been emasculated and voluntarily sold out to the United States of Europe. Nothing short of full EU withdrawal will return us to being the proud, independent and sovereign nation that we once were.top
The game's up for the blundering Hague
9 February, 2011
It started with a newspaper interview in which the foreign secretary was asked to comment on something that Benjamin Netanyahu had said. The Israeli PM had declared that his country should prepare for 'any outcome' in its dealings with Egypt, depending on the course of events in that country. This was an entirely understandable comment. Presumably he meant that Israel had to contemplate the possibility of an Islamist takeover in Egypt, and be forced to rethink its military and intelligence options accordingly. Anything less would be idle complacency.
But the foreign secretary has condemned his remarks as 'belligerent,' which is both absurd and immoral. Is it really warlike to defend oneself against enemies that are sworn to your destruction? Well a clue to why Hague thinks so is contained in other remarks he made.
'Amidst the opportunity for countries like Tunisia and Egypt, there is a legitimate fear that the Middle East peace process will lose further momentum and be put to one side, and will be a casualty of uncertainty in the region. It is a time to inject greater urgency into the Middle East peace process.'
Did he mean that the revolutionary upheaval in Egypt could usher in an era of religious extremism, greater financial support for Hamas and Hezbullah and the possibility of a regional conflict being ignited? Clearly, that would put the 'peace process' at risk. But no, that was not where he was coming from at all. His all too predictable target (yes, you've guessed it) was Israeli 'settlements.' Israel's policy, he said, was 'disappointing' and it could make peace 'impossible' in the next few years.
The implication is that what it will take to re-ignite these talks is a fresh settlement freeze. This despite the fact that the very riots he talks about in Tunisia and Egypt were not started by unrest over Israel or the occupation. This despite the fact that the PA boycotted talks for most of the previous 10 month settlement freeze, and refuses to recognise Israel as a Jewish state. This despite the fact that the real causes of the conflict, namely the rejectionist mindset of the PA and its allies, remains insatiable.
For Mr. Hague to spout such fatuous nonsense is a telling indicator of where his party stands on foreign affairs. We should all be very, very worried.top
Israel isn't neutral on real democracy in Egypt
8 February, 2011
I think that Shmuley Boteach may have missed the point in his critique of Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday. In his weekly column for the Jerusalem Post, he wrote that ‘Israel is missing a once in a lifetime historic opportunity to support Arab freedom.’ Noting Netanyahu’s apprehension at the wave of protest in Egypt, Boteach says that Israel’s apparent posture of neutrality is wrong. It risks mimicking ‘the moral neutrality that has characterised the presidency of Barack Obama.’ He makes the quite correct observation that Israel is the lone voice of liberal democracy and tolerance in the region and ponders why the Israeli leader has been so lukewarm over the events in Egypt.
But he is asking the wrong question. Israelis are not apprehensive about democracy, and neither is Netanyahu. What they are apprehensive about is faux democracy, or the legitimisation of religious extremism through the ballot box. The election of a Muslim Brotherhood government, or one in which the Brotherhood (or their political representatives) formed a significant core, would set back the cause of freedom and dignity for decades. Such a government would seek the imposition of Sharia law on the entire population. It would repress women’s rights, persecute homosexuals, abolish individual and collective freedoms and impose a 7th century religious code on a modern 21st century state. In short, it would become the Iran of North Africa, an intolerant, homophobic, racist and thoroughly anti Western regime.
While such a regime would appear legitimate insofar as it had achieved power through democratic means, it would soon do all it could to undermine democracy, as the mullahs did after 1979. In 1933 Hitler used the Reichstag to pass laws that destroyed every aspect of Weimar democracy. Within a year, Germany was a full blown personal dictatorship. The Muslim Brotherhood would surely do the same. Democracy is about more than the vote. It is, as Shimon Peres once quipped, about what happens after the vote.
What must underpin any genuine democracy is a series of representative and accountable institutions: an independent judiciary, a workable police force and a free press. There should be checks and balances between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. The government should seek to uphold certain inalienable freedoms, such as those of speech, protest and religious belief and above all, guarantee protection under the law for every group in society. In Egypt’s case, this includes protection for the persecuted Christian minority and the tiny remnant of the country’s Jews. Yet in a country where anti semitism and religious extremism flourish, who can guarantee that any elected government could provide such protection?
Of course, where there are genuine voices clamouring for a Western style liberal democracy, Israel should support them. Democracies rarely go to war with each other after all. But Egypt in 2011 is not the same as Czechoslovakia in 1989. Netanyahu has every reason to be apprehensive.top
Ultra Zionism or ultra distortion?
4 February, 2011
For many observers, yesterday’s BBC2 documentary ‘The ultra Zionists’ will serve as further proof that a seemingly militant and intransigent group of Israelis are primarily responsible for the ongoing conflict between Arabs and Jews. The documentary maker, Louis Theroux, well known for exposing fringe religious groups, travelled to the West Bank to meet a small group of nationalist settlers.
Some of those he encountered had distinctly unpleasant attitudes towards Arabs. They believed that the Jewish presence in disputed territory was divinely mandated and that their obligation to live on the land outweighed other considerations. One might argue that they would hardly make ideal neighbours. Some had even built outposts in defiance of Israeli law, only to see them demolished by the Israeli army. Theroux correctly pointed out that the settlers had to be protected by a large contingent of the IDF who frequently clashed with Arab protestors.
He went to great lengths to highlight the sense of Palestinian grievance, including an interview with an Arab youth who spoke of his desire to reclaim all of ‘Palestine.’ But therein lies the problem. Let’s leave aside the most obvious distortion involved here, namely that by interviewing only the most hard core settlers, the less intransigent ones were ignored. (This matters because settlers are usually seen as right wing fanatics).
The must fundamental flaw with the documentary is that it unwittingly imbibes Palestinian victimhood. It seems to take the view that if the settlers would only disappear, then Palestinian hate would disappear too. In other words, that the Jew hating and Israel hating rhetoric of the Palestinian street would evaporate if only the settler ‘fanatics’ were moved out of the West Bank.
But the source of Palestinian rage runs far deeper than this. It springs from the appalling cultural brainwashing that exists at every level of Palestinian and Arab culture. From the earliest age, Palestinians are taught that the Jews are their mortal enemies whose alleged perfidy is laid down in the Koran. They are routinely described as corrupt and untrustworthy, as the sons of ape and pigs. Jews are demonised on television and radio, in newspapers, schools and mosques. It is from this visceral hatred that the conflict ultimately springs; settlements merely exacerbate it. And if settlements are such a roadblock to peace, why was it that the removal of settlers in Gaza only heightened the terror threat to the Jewish state?
Clearly, it was not the aim of this documentary to chart the causes of the Arab Israeli conflict. But in such a contentious conflict, perceptions do matter. All that this documentary will have done is cement the widespread, but utterly distorted perception, that Palestinian hatred is explicable on purely Western lines. It is not.top
Further thoughts on Egypt
02 February, 2011
Some further thoughts on the rapidly changing events in Egypt today.
1) It seems to me that the West's best option right now is to stick with the military regime, whether or not Mubarak stays, both to preserve much needed stability and to deal a blow to Islamist groups (The Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas) who are gearing up for regime change.
2) Support for the regime, however, should come at a price. The West, the US in particular, should make clear to the Egyptian government that its financial aid will be dependent on the implementation of domestic reforms, including the establishment of more democratic freedoms within the country. This way they will show that they are on the side of those who support liberal democratic values. This way they will show that they no longer offer blind support to autocratic regimes that deny their peoples fundamental liberties. Genuine Egyptian democrats should be feted across the West.
3) In ideological terms, genuine democracy in Egypt is clearly preferable to rule by the military. Representative government based on the rule of law, where checks and balances exist to limit the power of the executive, is the right of every national population.
4) However, as Robin Shepherd points out on his blog, the vast majority of Egyptians hold unfavorable opinions about Jews and many embrace jihadist Islam. Anti semitism is incompatible with liberal democracy because it challenges the universalist notion that all citizens are equal under the law. The Muslim Brotherhood thrive on a diet of virulent anti semitism and anti Zionism. Therefore:
5) If Egypt is to democratise, it must continue to suppress the Brotherhood and prevent them from exploiting the democratic process. This way, the path towards a more benign politics will not be scuppered by religious radicals.top