Friday, 4 February 2011

Egypt: Let freedom rain (on Israeli heads)?

The ripples of unrest in the Arab world that began with Tunisia's brave 'Jasmine Revolution' are raising some interesting moral conflicts for Westerners and some more tangible concerns for Israel. Many liberal commentators are understandably lauding the spread of democracy through the streets of the Middle East. Although many wide-eyed media commentators are only just beginning to admit it, that looks like dangerous naivety.

Governments in Washington, London, Paris and Jerusalem are justifiably concerned with the lasting consequences of multiple regime changes in the region. You don't need to look at a timeline since the Suez Crisis and Empire to understand it, but it does add some colour to leaders' dilemmas. Nowadays Egypt numbers 84 million people, and it's biggest opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood, is an Islamist grouping, with an unstable history of extremism and encouraging Jihadist acts. So, Jewish and Western leaders might be forgiven for their reluctance to cheer too loudly. These people are ugly, and they are waiting in the wings.

As one friend of mine recently commented, many media commentators are viewing unrest in the Middle East as the prelude to a second Berlin Wall event: the oppressed masses confining Cold War-era authoritarian regimes to the litter bin of history. What we have in reality, is perhaps just as likely to be the prelude to a second Holocaust.

The Israelis and others are naturally worried that if the Muslim Brotherhood, and others similar to them, get their hands on the reins of state power, Egypt could become a virtual superpower of state sponsored terrorism that would diminish the relative standing of the threat posed by a backwater like Afghanistan to nothing more than a peripheral headache in defence and security policy. Worse, Egypt is already well armed. The US alone has been shipping an average of $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak for the best part of thirty years, helping keep him in power until now. A new and potentially hostile Egyptian government might end the quarter century of stable relations that the country has maintained with Israel, following Israeli withdrawal from Sanai in 1979, just before Mubarak took over. A new regime in Egypt might not continue to see its military hardware as chips to keep Iran in place. Egypt's US-supplied F-16 fighters, Abrams tanks, guided missiles and navy frigates could be used to aid those forces keen to rain down destruction on Israel.

More worryingly for Israel, while they enjoy US support and protection, the United States will likely not commit itself to another ground war in the Middle East, so in the case of a major conventional war breaking out between Israel and its neighbours, the Israelis will be cornered, outnumbered, desperate, and ultimately more likely to push the button for their  nuclear deterrent.

When I was a rookie student of international relations, one of the more up-to-date schools of thinking was neo-liberalism. The theory goes that free markets, trade and globalisation - with all the gaudy trinkets of consumerism and now online social media - encourage democracy's spread globally. There have been few ordeals more cringeworthy than listening to social media dilettantes prattle on about Twitter's revolutionary role and re-setting their online locations to Tehran during Iran's post-election protests in 2009. Much of this is over-hyped bullshit, but the internet has undeniably added an important contribution to the spread of Western liberal ideas.

The next neo-liberalist tenet is the idea that democracies do not wage wars of aggression against other democracies. This does hold some water historically, as it's difficult to think of examples of wars between liberal democracies. However, take one look at the sort of Islamic fundamentalist politicians elected in Palestine. Hamas is still listed by the US as a terrorist organisation. It effectively blurs the line to the point where it is impossible to distinguish where its political, paramilitary and terrorist functions begin or end. More than that, Hamas as an offshoot of the original Muslim Brotherhood organisation. Of course there is no certainty which political parties will win out in Egypt after Mubarak, Egypt is much more secular than Saudi Arabia, but the Brotherhood will certainly not be unrepresented.

The problem for the Israelis is that while events in Egypt are out of their control, they face pressure to support Mubarak as a long-time reliable ally: keeping him in power is in their short-term national interest.

However, publicly backing Mubarak is probably as bad for Mubarak as it is for Israel's image abroad. So better to keep some distance. Meddling could make things worse. Backing the 'wrong' side would provide justification for hostility from whatever new regime steps into the vacuum. But there is also little point in backing the 'right' side in this conflict. Egyptian poverty under strong government keeps Egypt's problems within Egypt, but suicide bombers bring them loudly on to the doorsteps of Israel and the West.

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