Monday, 31 January 2011

Walk like an Egyptian

Last week and over the weekend (yes, I know this is late, and no, I don’t have an excuse) Egypt imploded into internal turmoil, culminating in riots and angry crowds calling for President Mubarak to stand down. The unrest was triggered by the downfall of the Tunisian government earlier this month. Mubarak has a 30 year history of abuse, negligence and oppression in Egypt which looks set to end in the coming weeks.

The most interesting thing about this story as far as I am concerned is that in most people’s list of countries with oppressive and undemocratic regimes neither Egypt nor Tunisia tend to feature very highly. We all know about Zimbabwe, North Korea, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, indeed most of the Middle East would be black listed by most people with a working knowledge of international politics. Mubarak’s 30 year dictatorship, along with President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia’s 23 years in office have largely slipped under the radar.

This begs an obvious question. Why are some world dictatorships given a far worse press than others? An obvious answer would be to look at the severity of the offences; here we can clearly see why Zimbabwe and North Korea remain in the public eye. However given the revelations that have come out in the last few days about lack of basic freedoms in a grossly undereducated population in Egypt indicate that there might be something more sinister involved.

If one looks at the regime in Iran for example, there is little to suggest that the situation is any worse than in Egypt. While internationally aggressive, internally Iran has far better standard of education and, in many cases, more freedom. Yet the media focuses far more on the evils of the Iranian government (of which there are many) that they do on those of Mubarak.

Perhaps the most obvious case of double standards amid the international community is the example of Iraq. The Iraqi people did not even have to rise up in revolt for the American government to send in the troops. Saddam’s regime was terrible and there is no avoiding that, but then so is Mubarak’s. The international response has generally been to talk a lot of nonsense about moving towards a democracy and supporting the Egyptian people’s right to freedom of expression. There has not even been a hint of condemnation directed towards Mubarak from international leaders. I suggest that, were this to happen elsewhere in the Middle East, the international community would be up in arms condemning the government for crimes against its people.

A simple explanation for this seemingly unbalanced response from the international community is that Egypt has generally internalised its troubles. Egypt does not strut around on the world stage like Iran and North Korea. Mubarak is not outspoken like Mugabe. Egypt rarely finds itself in the international limelight these days and if it does it is usually in relation to Israel. Egypt simply isn’t interesting. The dictatorships people have heard of generally pose a threat to world peace.

This is, of course, not an excuse. An offence against human rights is an offence against human rights whether is threatens to spark an international conflict of not. The Egyptian people will not take solace in the fact that, despite 30 years of an oppressive regime, their government is not a threat to anyone else. While of course it is the job of journalists to report on international affairs and focus on the ones which are most dangerous to the world at whole, the fact that Mubarak can pass under the radar in such a way for 30 years is unacceptable.

The interesting thing is that, for many years now, Egypt has been an ally of the United States. The Suez Canal is a vitally important international trade route that, according to the American government, needs protecting more than the freedom of the Egyptian people. Mubarak has no ambition to hurt America, so is considered far safer that other Islamic leaders, so, despite the lack of democracy or liberty, Egypt is a good ally to have.

This blatant, shameless and unprincipled manipulation of international affairs with the sole intention of strengthening America’s position on the world stage should surprise no-one in light of the Wikileaks scandal. For a country built in principles of life, liberty and happiness for everyone (not just Americans) it is depressing that the US government openly supports despotic regimes for their own benefit.

The dreadful situation in Egypt is an exemplar of what is wrong with international politics. Democratic countries in which political and social freedom is widespread did not leap to the support of the Egyptian people as they burst out in protest against 30 years of oppression. People, you see, are volatile. The Islamic Brotherhood, an extreme Islamic group, may well aim to fill the power vacuum left by Mubarak. This would lead to The West losing a valuable ally in the Middle East and control of the Suez Canal. Better for Mubarak to remain in power so as to maintain America’s favourable status quo. Of course there is another option. The protests are not explicitly religious. There are, of course, religious elements to the protests, but protests calling for greater freedom are hardly likely to end up supporting extreme Islamist groups who would doubtless curb freedom just as much as Mubarak. A democratic process could be established which allowed the Egyptian people to chose who rules them.

Fortunately this is most likely to happen. However it will happen in entirely the wrong way. The Egyptian people will and have been left out to dry by the international community aiming to maintain their political advantage. The right thing will be done because that’s what works best for America, not because democracy and freedom are political rights that all should have and that all should strive towards. 

No comments:

Post a Comment