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What the West must not be panicked into doing over Egypt

2011 February 4
by Paul Vallely

Pity the poor intelligence expert who reassured a session in Davos last week that – despite an overthrown government in Tunisia, violence in Yemen and food price protests in Algeria and Jordan – Egypt was too stable to succumb to popular protest. Others were less surprised by the turn of events.

The countries of north Africa have many problems in common: escalating food prices, increasing unemployment, and corrupt, inefficient and sclerotic leaders whose power is sustained by oppressive, if not downright repressive, police states. The region has felt like a pressure cooker waiting to blow.

Now that the vent is released the old covert forces are once again surfacing. The price of Brent crude oil has surged to $100plus a barrel for fear that production will fall or a closure of the Suez Canal might disrupt supplies. Oil is not just vital to the economies of the West. It has allowed Arab states to fund large armies and secret police organisations.

Suddenly worries are raised that Egypt, Tunisia and the rest could become extreme Islamist theocracies. Fears for the security of Israel are being cranked up in the United States, where the nation is seen as a bulwark of American interests in the Middle East, and where no serious US politician wants to risk losing the massive American Jewish vote.

Vested interests conspire to promote the idea that the countries of the region might fall, one by one, to the Islamic bogeyman.  In Israel the prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned Egypt could become like Iran after its 1979 revolution. And in Cairo the regime withdrew police from the streets, and instructed secret police to masquerade as looters to give the impression that without Mubarak the country will descend into chaos.

The West has learned that in the Middle East you must be careful what you wish for. We trumpet democracy but when it looked like Islamists might win the second round of voting in Algeria in 1992, we supported its military-backed government in suspending elections. We have the same ambivalence today about Tunisia and Egypt.

But we should guard against being fooled by Mr Netanyahu and those in Washington with a similar Manichean worldview. Popular revolt in both Tunisia and Egypt has been sparked not by Islamic jihad but by secular concerns – the state of the economy, the inefficiency of the regime and the flagrant disregard for the voice of the ordinary citizen.

It is true that the US is not popular among ordinary Arabs and other Muslims. Only 17 per cent of Egyptians, Pakistanis and Turks have a favourable view of the US according to the authoritative Pew Global Attitudes survey. But 91 percent of respondents in Egypt insisted that democracy is compatible with Islam. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has joined forces with secular opposition groups to back Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and former diplomat, as the successor to Mubarak.

The evidence from Iraq is that when you lift the lid from the authoritarian pressure cooker and allow real elections you get a diversity of views; in Iraq’s parliamentary elections secularists and extreme Islamists won seats but the biggest party was of moderate Muslims whose worldview bridges the two poles.

Of course it is possible that, in a political vacuum, an extreme Islamist party could force its way to power – or, as the conspiracists suggest, a moderate Muslim Brotherhood could change its stripes once in power. But most citizens do not want to replace a secular dictator with a religious one. The role of the West should be encouraging the proper democratic expression of their view and not be panicked into covert support for a new repressive despot with a different name.

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