3 Feb 2011

The Audacity of Hope?

"People should not be afraid of governments. Governments should be afraid of peoples." Egypt erupts and the world watches on. The audacity of hope...waiting to be fulfilled.

What is going to be the outcome? We can all interpret and speculate but nobody knows for sure what sort of Egypt will emerge from the debris. Like so many other countries in the Middle East (Israel included) we understand so little of the realities of day to day life inside.
Egypt didn't so much erupt as heatedly simmer over a long period of time before coming to an angry boil. It did so largely because its ruler and those dependent on him became far too detached from his own people.

Hosni Mubarak was kept afloat by £1.3 billion dollars of American aid money every year. For the Americans he provided stability. But that stability has now come at a very costly price for ordinary Egyptian people and now for the wider influence of America itself.

Mubarak is a rigid army man and, like many military dictators, his instinct will be of stubborn denial: to stay and fight to the end, however he can and whatever the cost. No humiliating exit for he. He will want to leave much later rather than sooner, if at all. By playing for time he might be able to restrengthen his grip once more, or at least secure a more comfortable and lucrative exit mitigating or eliminating potential retributions and prosecutions.

The problem extends well beyond Mubarak because of all the people within his corrupt regime who have strong vested interests in maintaining their power and privilege. The longer they manage to cling the more time they have to 'tidy' their financial affairs (international property empires and Swiss bank accounts no doubt) and bury the evidence of their wrongdoing.

One of the most striking things about the recent events in Egypt has been the caution bordering on appeasement of international politicians (particularly America) to speak up more forcefully and unequivocally for the Egyptian people.

But for decades America has decided to pick and choose its dictators. The double standards hypocrisy of preaching democracy to the rest of the world while indulging and financing nasty, repressive, but friendly allied, regimes is not easily forgotten on the Arab street. The hatred of American regimes has its roots.

Bank Ki Moon expressing his concern or Baroness Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, calling for restraint is like a petrified pygmy trying to irrigate the Sahara desert with a watering can. These leaders are little less detached from the realities of everyday Egyptian life than Mubarak.

Tony Blair, belatedly in his role as Middle East peace supremo, decided to speak up on behalf of the Egyptian people. Perhaps he fancied stepping in for a quick, you-know-I'm-a- pretty-ordinary Egyptian kinda guy, stint as president from his Egyptian holiday home or a short commute from his Jerusalem mansion.

Yet the biggest failure of leadership here has come from Obama. He sounded more like the defence lawyer for the accused when he should have speaking up for the abused, especially when they were being battered by their own regime. What use was a nice speech about stability for the Egyptian people? Too little, too late.
Sometimes you need to call a spade a spade. You sense Obama would insist on calling it a long-handled earth moving implement until he was sure he could say otherwise.

The great pity here is that America has missed a wonderful opportunity here to redefine itself across the Middle East as being on the side of the ordinary, oppressed and stifled populations instead of being seen to be sticking up for repressive dictators.

This is precisely the sort of revolution - peaceful protests, secular, young, democratic - which America and Obama should be doing everything possible to encourage and enable instead of attaching themselves to an outdated, brutal regime.

The fact that Mubarak sent out his ugly rent-a-thugs to deliberately provoke violence was a tactic as clever as it was desperate. Organised anarchy. It is an old tactic used by dictators everywhere: sow the seeds of chaos and violence, then use the violence as a pretext to reimpose order and rule by emergency decree.

But, thanks to the remarkable will of the protestors and enabled by the power of modern technology, these despicable tactics have been transparently exposed.

The intimidation of foreign journalists - smashing cameras and beating up reporters - is also completely unnacceptable. Such bullying betrays the fear of a guilty regime caught bare-handed wanting to shoot and silence the messengers before they tell the world of the dirty truths they wish to hide and bury. Their self-preservation, it seems, comes at any cost.

Closing down the internet and shutting off mobile phone networks are not enough to silence the people. Where in the past dictators could hide many unpleasant things, in 2011 very little can remain hidden.

It is only a matter of time before Israel, a country whose regime itself exists on the perpetual reinforcement of fear and threat by pre-emptive aggression, starts scaremongering. Extremists on both sides need to empower and embolden enemies to justify their own ways and means. So why have Obama and co. been so slow, muddled and ambiguously timid in speaking up for the moderates?

It must be because they too are afraid of the consequences of losing a strategic ally. Never mind the fact that Mubarak has screwed his own people for 30 years. Lets gloss over that shall we? Because in the outdated simplicity of America's security and oil interests Mubarak was 'with' them rather than 'against' them.

The blood of the violence on the streets of Cairo is blood on the hands of Hosni Mubarak. He must be held responsible for the actions of his regime. International leaders could and should have taken a much firmer pre-emptive line in warning him that his actions in tacitly enabling the increase in violence would have retrospective consequences for him personally.

So watch now for exaggerated threats stemming from Israel about the Muslim Brotherhood turning Egypt into a supersized Hamas and Hizbollah combined. Or, even more outrageously, the prospect of Egypt becoming another Iran.

This is nonsense of course, but Israel knows that this sort of noisy threat rhetoric (deployed for years to justify the 'War on Terror') goes down well in America. So often people fear things they don't properly understand, or indeed want to understand.

Look at Turkey. It has an Islamist dominated government, but so what? The country is largely peaceful. It has free and fair elections. Its people have become significantly better off in the last ten years because the country is on the whole well governed and the economy well run. All those who like to demonise Islam and exist in fear of Islamic governments should go there to see for themselves.

Israel has a very real opportunity to address its own security issues much closer to home by opening up the prison-like entity of Gaza and engaging with Hamas. In fact, I think it is quite likely that under the next Egyptian regime, the Egypt-Gaza border will become more open. Israel can do nothing about this, nor should it.

It would be no bad thing to reassess how we think about Israel. Is it wise for American foreign policy to be dictated by a relatively small number of Zionist nutters distorting and poisoning the wider Middle East with their uncompromising, aggressive behaviour?

It cannot even be in Israel's security and economic interests to continue living in aggressive isolation from its neighbours
With a change in Egyptian regime to something far more representative of the people, Israel will have to think very hard about its own future, possibly one without such wholehearted American support for every action. Religious fanatacism must have its limits.

Obama is cerebral kind of guy. If he is to tackle the root causes of the cycle of conflict and violence in the Middle East he must start by tackling Israel itself.

Obama has an opportunity to push Israel much harder into making peace. He must stop appeasing its aggressive behaviour. He can and should withdraw or dramatically reduce the vast foreign aid America gives to Israel. He can tell them to stop the settlement building and end the apartheid of treating Palestinians as second class citizens.

Obama can stop the collective punishment, but will he?

Does Israel, hijacked by its own zealous extremists in government, really want to make peace. Does Obama have the desire to compel them to do so? Can he lose the blind committment to everything Israel does and open his eyes to the realities of Palestinians lives?

Sadly, there seems to be a large gap between what Obama says in his nice speeches and what he actually does. But then, I suppose that's called being a politician. So much for the progressive president and his audacity of hope.

Indeed can America as a country be less one-eyed and one dimensional in how it views this part of the world and the people here? If it cannot then it risks becoming irrelevant and more loathed.

The repression of stability is not what the Egyptian people want. When people lose their fear, governments that have no legitimacy are in trouble.

The lessons from Egypt and Tunisia are clear. When illegitimate governments don't respond to or even listen to the needs and aspirations or the people, they are going to be in big trouble. Bad goverance will lead to a change of governance, as it should do everywhere.

Imagine the consequences elsewhere if Egypt, the beating heart of the Arab world with 84 million people, can force out one of the world's most well backed and entrenched dictators. Dictators everywhere are already thinking harder than ever before about how to avoid a similar fate.

They ought to be very afraid. People ought to be emboldened.

Satellite television, mobile phones and internet technology have never been more prevalent in enabling information and knoweldge to be shared. Western governments should be doing everything they can to enable and bolster transparency and free expression in the darker, more repressive corners of the world.

Such things can help people start to hold their rulers to account and the rulers will have to respond.

Responding with force will have consequences. Cosmetic changes and buying off core supporters might not be enough. To bribe and bully are not enough. Military solutions to political problems don't work. Ask Hosni Mubarak.

Before, people were angry but they couldn't do anything about it. Now they can.

As one bloodied protestor said,

"Mubarak is the terrorist here. He is causing the blood on these streets! Barack Obama, are you with us or against us?"

What happened to the audacity of hope, Mr. Obama?

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