Monday, January 31, 2011

Everyone is an expert

Watching events in Tunisia, Algeria and, especially, Egypt, I have been struck by the number of people who probably would be hard put to place various Egyptian cities and all the different countries of North Africa, the Horn and the Middle East on the map are, in fact, apparently experts on events there.

Expertise varies from people who are certain that Egypt without Mubarak will be a far greater threat to Israel and the West than it was under him to those who think all Muslims are "nutjobs" anyway.

Readers of this blog will know that I do not think all Muslims are "nutjobs" and have been very doubtful about Mubarak's good faith though, to be fair, he did have a difficult task, as will anyone who emerges as Egypt's leader in the near future. Will it be ElBaradei (a gruesome prospect as Claudia Rossett points out) or will he be supported by the Muslim Brotherhood the way a hanged man is supported by a rope?

I have no doubts that the demonstrators in Tunisia and Egypt and any other country run by some Arab despot are there because they have finally realized that it is not the West, the Great Satan, the Lesser Satan or Israel who is causing their problems but their own governments. As they do not have free and fair elections (unlike us in Britain and what a success we have made of that privilege) they have been rioting in order to overthrow those governments. What next? Nobody seems to know for certain.

Will it be 1989 for the Middle East? One hopes so, of course, but that seems unlikely for a number of reasons. The East European countries and Soviet republics (most of whom have not actually done terribly well out the last twenty years) had one coherent enemy though the situation was different in different places. In the Middle East and North Africa the enemy is diffuse though there are similarities, so each country will have to cope on its own.

There was a civil society present in many of the then Communist countries and the ones in which it was weak are still suffering from post-Communist traumas. There is a civil society in Egypt but not so much in the other countries and even there it may not be strong enough to create a political structure. Even non-experts have realized that the Muslim Brotherhood, not the leaders of the demonstrations or the riots are, nevertheless, waiting in the shadows, hoping to grab power if they can. Possibly they will be able to and the Islamists will return to Tunisia and take over in Algeria.

It may well turn into a re-run of 1979 when Khomeini took over in Iran and imposed a far worse regime than anyone could dream of under the Shah.

Meanwhile, one lot of tourists are showing their faith in ... well, something or other. It would appear that nothing will stop Georgians from going to seek the sun in Sharm el-Sheikh. After all, the riots have not spread beyond Cairo by the looks of it.

ADDENDUM: An excellent article by Max Boot in the Wall Street Journal pours cold water on all those who tell us that President Mubarak is the West's greatest ally and those who are whooping with joy at his imminent departure
Thus while Egypt's security services cracked down hard on Islamist terrorism in the 1990s when it was threatening the lucrative tourist trade, Mr. Mubarak has allowed the Muslim Brotherhood—the mother of all Islamist organizations—to become the main opposition party. This has made him, as he well knows, the indispensable man to the West—the only thing supposedly standing in the way of an Islamist power grab.
Then again:
Mr. Mubarak's downfall could well be a good thing in the long run if it opens up Egypt's closed political and economic systems to greater dynamism and debate, so that in the future frustrated young Egyptians can find peaceful expression rather than strapping on a suicide vest. Yet we should be realistic about the short-term costs of a new regime in a country that has been subjected to decades of anti-Western and anti-Israeli propaganda by Mr. Mubarak—and where many blame us (with some justification) for inflicting Mr. Mubarak on them. A government that better reflects the will of the people will be less willing to cut deals with the U.S. or Israel.

Mohammed ElBaradei, the former U.N. atomic agency head who has emerged as the leader of the opposition, made clear his anti-Israel sentiments in an interview last summer with the German magazine Der Spiegel. He called the Gaza Strip "the world's largest prison" and declared that it was imperative to "open the borders, end the blockade."

Mr. ElBaradei also spoke glowingly of Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has assailed Israel in harsh terms and voted against United Nations sanctions on Iran. Mr. ElBaradei said: "Turkey is a member of NATO and partner of the West and Israel. And yet Prime Minister Erdogan has no qualms about supporting an aid flotilla for Gaza that was supposed to breach Israel's sea blockade. The people of the Arab world are celebrating him. Erdogan's photo can be seen everywhere."

That is probably what we can expect from a post-Mubarak Egypt. It is doubtful that Mr. ElBaradei would terminate Egypt's peace treaty with Israel—a move that would cost Egypt more than a billion dollars annually in American aid. But it is probable that, like Mr. Erdogan's Turkey, Mr. ElBaradei's Egypt would be less cooperative with Israel and more friendly to its enemies. In the Muslim world, this is actually a moderate position compared to the jihadism of the Islamists. But from the standpoint of the U.S. or Israel it is obviously far from ideal.
The moral of the story is that supporting two-faced dictators never ends well.

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