Egypt, Blair and the Israel factor

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by James Maxwell

Tony Blair’s pressing desire to see democracy flourish in the Middle-East seems to have dissipated recently. 

In an interview with Piers Morgan on CNN last month the former Prime Minister, who once cast himself as an agent of revolutionary change in the region, described deposed Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak as “immensely courageous and a force for good”.

He also insisted that the essentially secular uprising surging through the streets of Egypt’s major cities proceed cautiously, lest it open the doors to an Islamist takeover of the state.

From someone who has spoken so frequently about the necessity of authoritarian regimes in the Arab world to embrace the “universal values of the human spirit: freedom, not tyranny; democracy, not dictatorship; the rule of law, not the rule of the secret police”, these remarks are quite perverse.

As Blair well knows, Mubarak’s rule was cruel as well as illegitimate.  Not only did the 82 year-old fail to contest a single election in line with internationally recognised standards of fairness and transparency, he also systematically suppressed and brutalised all opposition throughout the majority of his thirty years in power

How then do we explain Blair’s apparent volte face?  Why was he willing to spill gallons of blood ‘liberating’ Afghanistan and Iraq but wouldn’t so much as offer a few meagre words of support to the protesters in Tahrir Square?

For decades, successive administrations in Cairo have used the spectre of militant Islam to circumvent the democratic aspirations of Egyptian citizens.  Under the pretext of subduing the Muslim Brotherhood, autocratic rulers from Nasser onwards have imposed considerable restrictions on the exercise of civil and political liberty in the country.

For the most part this produced the intended effect, with the challenge of both religious extremism and left-wing subversion kept to a minimum.  Coupled with the peace agreement struck between Sadat and former Israeli President Menachim Begin in 1979, it also secured the financial and diplomatic backing of Washington and London.

In fact, it was Mubarak’s unstinting fidelity to this agreement that ultimately proved decisive in the consolidation of his nation’s alliance with the West.

For the United States and Europe, Israel is of paramount importance.  As their key strategic partner, its status as the Middle-East’s dominant military power provides them with a vital foothold in an area of the world still brimming with untapped oil wealth.

However, Egypt’s nascent revolution threatens this.

If, as seems increasingly likely, a government genuinely representative of popular opinion emerges from the ashes of Mubarak’s old martial hierarchy there is every chance it will depart from the long standing policy of cooperation with Israel. I f one emerges which reflects some of the underlying radical tendencies in Egyptian society it might go as far as abandoning it entirely.

Consequently, Israel would be more isolated than ever, hemmed in from the north, south and east by states that question its very right to existence.

Further, a free Egypt could quickly end its collusion in Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, which continues to starve 1.5 million Palestinians of access to basic resources.  For the past few years Egyptian troops have patrolled Gaza’s southern boundary, arresting and detaining Palestinians caught trying to smuggle weapons and supplies over the border.  The Muslim Brotherhood is foremost among Egypt’s major political parties in calling for this practice to stop.

Blair cynically claims this would “undermine the peace process”.  But the recent publication of documents detailing negotiations between representatives of Israel and Palestine in 2007 and 2008 reveal that the ‘peace process’ as such does not exist.

In its place is the Israeli state, backed all the way by Britain and the United States, dictating the terms and conditions of Palestinian surrender.  This includes the end of any meaningful opposition to illegal settlements on Palestinian territory and the complete disarmament of Hamas in Gaza and the PLO in the West Bank.

Blair is aware of this reality just as surely as he is aware of Mubarak’s appalling human rights record.

When he says then, that the West “shouldn’t be the slightest bit embarrassed about the fact that it worked with Mubarak over the peace process”, he actually means that in pursuing the interests of their Israeli partner, the West is entitled when ‘necessary’ to abrogate democracy and individual liberty in Egypt.

Similar inferences have been made by Hillary Clinton and William Hague, with the latter warning, “Amidst the opportunity for (reform) … there is a real fear that the Middle East peace process will lose further momentum and be put to one side, and will be a casualty of (continued) uncertainty.”

These words may sound innocuous but actually they represent a stark warning to all Egyptians; do not dishonour your treaty with Israel nor interfere with Tel Aviv’s ongoing programme of expansion into Palestinian land.  Israel’s regional hegemony must remain unchallenged.

For the last ten years Tony Blair has employed all his argumentative and rhetorical skills to justify his wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, often on the moral grounds that the “forces of progress” must confront and defeat the “forces of reaction”.

Yet as the people of Egypt battle against the forces of reaction in their own country he tells them, in the most condescending and self-contradictory manner, to restrain their democratic impulses.

This hypocrisy reveals a simple, brutal truth: Western leaders place a far greater premium on Israeli security than they do on Arab freedom.

Egyptians would do well to bear this in mind as they go about trying to construct for themselves a new political order, otherwise they could soon find their revolution buried under the weight of the West’s cynical realpolitik.