West has little to fear from Arab populism


ANALYSIS:Egyptians are entitled to resent the West, but a new regime in Cairo should prove pragmatic rather than ideological, writes DENIS STAUNTON

AS EGYPTIAN security forces yesterday fortified Hosni Mubarak’s presidential palace with coils of barbed wire, the old tyrant’s friends in the West were anxiously counting down the hours to what most now see as his inevitable exit. The pace of events in Egypt has left western diplomats reeling as they seek to accommodate their policies to the prospect of a dramatic new political reality across the Arab world.

The popular protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen have shattered diplomatic faith in the decades-old bargain that saw the United States and Europe swallow their scruples about dealing with dictators in return for the promise of stability in a potentially dangerous neighbourhood. Israel embraced this pact with signal candour as I discovered last year in Jerusalem when a top diplomat cheerfully reeled off to me a list of friendly Arab despots before predicting with absolute confidence that nothing could shake the grip of Mubarak’s regime in Egypt.

After days of dithering and mixed signals, Barack Obama’s national security team has finally concluded that Mubarak must go, although the administration has been careful to avoid being seen to direct events in Cairo. EU foreign ministers this week called for “an orderly transition to a broad-based government” and for “essential democratic reforms” but their statement followed a number of discordant interventions from member states, notably German defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg’s warning of “the risk of an infectious momentum” across the Middle East.

The Egyptian protests have been remarkably free of anti-western rhetoric but Egyptians have good reason to feel aggrieved at the record of both the US and Europe in supporting Mubarak. The US gives Egypt more than $1 billion (€720 million) a year in mostly military aid and some of the tear gas canisters fired at demonstrators in Cairo were labelled “Made in the USA”.

Almost a decade ago, George W Bush proclaimed a democracy agenda for the Middle East, declaring that, as long as freedom did not flourish in the region “it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment and violence ready for export”. This agenda soon ground to a halt, however, after elections in the region produced unwelcome results, notably a victory for Hamas in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Mubarak’s determination to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and his co-operation with Washington’s “global war on terror” ensured that US pressure for political reform remained muted. Among those who feel most betrayed by Washington are Egypt’s anti-Islamist democracy activists, who seek a western-style, liberal democracy for their country. “The Islamists have powerful allies outside the country,” one such activist told me last weekend. “But where are ours? We represent the same values that you proclaim but your governments have abandoned us to keep this regime in power.”

The EU has contractual relationships with states like Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan and various aid programmes. Many of these agreements include clauses about rights and democracy, but in practice Europe has often ignored such concerns in favour of stability and co-operation on issues such as migration.

Any resentment a new Egyptian government may feel towards the West will be tempered by the knowledge that the country’s most important revenue streams – tourism, foreign aid, the Suez Canal and remittances from Egyptians living abroad – depend on a co-operative relationship with foreign powers.

The West may have to overcome its fear of dealing with an Egyptian government that includes the Muslim Brotherhood but much of that anxiety is misplaced, as much of its active membership is drawn from the liberal professions, such as lawyers, doctors and engineers, most of whom are at least as pragmatic as they are ideological. For historical and confessional reasons, any Islamist governments that may emerge out of a democratic southern Mediterranean are more likely to follow the model of Turkey’s moderate Justice and Development Party (AKP) rather than that of Iran.

Both Washington and Jerusalem fear the impact of democratisation on Egypt’s commitment to peace with Israel but any Egyptian move to tear up the peace treaty would be self-defeating, certain to produce a crisis in relations with the EU and the US, and unlikely to bring any benefit to Cairo.

A democratically elected government would almost certainly be more critical of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians but as the Israeli newspaper Haaretz noted in an editorial this week: “Instead of clinging to the old, collapsing order, [prime minister Binyamin] Netanyahu must seek peace agreements with both the Palestinians and with Syria in order to make Israel a more welcome and desirable neighbour.”

Europe has least to fear and most to gain from the spread of freedom throughout the region. Democratic neighbours not only make better friends and trading partners but in helping to build an arc of freedom around the Mediterranean, Europe can at last make its actions there align with its aspirations.

Denis Staunton is Foreign Editor