The new Arab revolt

What if democracy brings Islamist government? And other key questions.

One of my favourite lines from David Gardner's Last Chance: the Middle East in the Balance is the following: "Liberals tend to be coteries who like whisky and the west but the masses incline towards men in beards" – or "men in turbans", as Gardner, now the FT's international affairs editor, puts it elsewhere in the book.

This has been the dilemma at the heart of western attitudes towards the Middle East for decades now. Should we support friendly autocrats who oversaw regimes with secular veneers or condemn their repression and give our backing to pro-democracy groups? That we have done the former is to a large extent because our governments have feared the consequences of the dictators' departure. Whisky-drinking liberals are small elites that are unlikely to be elected. Men in turbans, however, are popular . . . but we don't like the idea of dealing with any more of them than we have to.

It is unclear what a democratic, post-Mubarak Egypt might look like (Tunisia, where secularism is entrenched and the Islamist opposition insignificant, is no guide). Nor can we be certain of the stripe of government that would be elected in other Arab states that were granted the luxury of a free vote.

But it is worth asking a few questions about the possible results, both in Egypt and in any other states in the Middle East that may follow suit.

1. If we – by which I mean the governments of Europe and North America – come out in favour of popular uprisings that sweep away dictators, how do we justify our past (indeed, our very recent) support for autocrats such as Mubarak?

2. If we are in favour of democracy in Tunisia and Egypt, how does this fit with our continuing friendly relations with the absolute monarchies of the Gulf?

3. We say that we wish the voices of the people to be heard. But will we want to listen to what they say? Or does this only apply if Egypt, say, elects an internationally respected moderate, such as Mohamed ElBaradei? (And already some are warning about him – see this Jerusalem Post article.)

4. If we say that only a democratic vote confers legitimacy on a government, why did the US and the EU refuse to recognise Hamas's election victory in 2006?

5. How will we deal with, and how will we view, the likes of Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi? Condemned as a "preacher of hate", he was not allowed into the UK in 2008. On the other hand, he has been condemned by jihadist groups for denouncing the 9/11 attacks and al-Qaeda. Foreign Policy magazine and others regularly refer to him as "probably the single most influential Sunni Islamist figure in the Arab world".

He has turned down the position of Supreme Guide to the Muslim Brotherhood at least once. Figures such as al-Qaradawi will have enormous importance in Arab democracies. Will we engage with them – or will we continue to ban them from our countries?

It may be that, contrary to the opinion of David Gardner and many other long-time observers of the Middle East, liberals turn out not to be just small coteries, but to have much wider appeal. If so – and it sounds like wishful thinking to me – they'd better keep quiet about the whisky-drinking.

If, however, the democratic transitions that we are now so delighted to see end up bringing Islamist-leaning governments to power, how will we react? At the very least, such administrations are not the most naturally ardent defenders of western notions of sexual freedom and equality. Will our first act be to castigate them for that?

In the light of ongoing developments, my recent posting on a new book on the Muslim Brotherhood was more timely than I could have realised. My series last summer on Rethinking Islamism is also relevant. I am aware – how could I not have been! – that it proved distinctly unpopular with many readers. But here is my problem with some of the comments. I closed Rethinking Islamism IV last June by quoting the highly regarded scholar Olivier Roy:

If democratisation means more nationalism and more sharia, this is far from what the western promoters of democratisation envisaged. But this problem must be faced head-on by saying: there is no way not to engage the Islamists. There is no alternative. We in the west have to make a choice between [Turkey's Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan and the Taliban. And if we don't choose Erdoğan, we'll get the Taliban.

The first comment after the piece was published began: "I totally reject both Erdogan and Taliban . . . It is outright insane to wish to dally with Islamists to any degree."

But this is not about "wishing" to "dally" with anyone. This is about the possible consequences of democracy in the region, which on any reasonable analysis includes the likelihood of Islamist-leaning governments coming to power. Are we ready to deal with them, to be open to dialogue and understanding? Or will our minds be so clouded by fear of the word "Islamist" that we cannot even recognise Turkey's AKP government as a moderate administration with which we should be glad to do business?

If so, it will be us who put a dampener on the euphoria accompanying the removal of the tyrants. Not to mention that we'll have shown that "democracy" to us means the freedom to choose your own government – so long as we approve of it.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage