America’s missed opportunity in Egypt

There’s no reason to believe that the uprising will bring radical Islamists to power – so why isn’t

Hosni Mubarak's days are numbered as the president of Egypt, and possibly as a living human being. The 80 million people of Egypt are not going anywhere; the struggle for democracy and fight for a better life goes on. After Mubarak is gone, the world will have to deal with the reaction of thousands of protesters who were injured, killed, arrested, tortured on the street while the leaders of the international community were issuing empty, meaningless statements and taking no action except to support this ailing regime in its fight against its own people.

The hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who have taken to the streets since 25 January are not political activists or full-time dissidents. They are also not the Islamists who have long been portrayed by the media as Egypt's largest opposition and the only real threat to the regime. It was thought that any change in Egypt would automatically bring to power radical Islamists whose masterplan is believed to be the application of sharia (Islamic law) and the destruction of Israel. This is why the US government has always given unconditional support to the authoritarian regime of Mubarak and his party.

The protesters who took to the streets to challenge the country's brutal security forces did not risk their lives to apply shariaa or wipe Israel off the map. I should also point out that the protesters also had no interest in stoning adulterers to death. Their demands were for a job with a decent income, an end to the 30-year-long emergency rule, safe roads and public transportation, fair elections and a police force whose role is to protect rather than intimidate them.

Despite an endless number of international human rights reports condemning Egypt and giving the country a very poor ranking in the various global freedom and transparency indices, Joe Biden, the US vice-president, unashamedly refused to describe Mubarak as a dictator and said he should not step down . President Barack Obama himself described the Egyptian dictator as a "friend of the US" and a "force of stability in the region".

The Obama administration, especially Hillary Clinton, keeps using the word "reform" instead of "change" when commenting on the situation in Egypt. What the Americans fail to understand is that Egyptians are willing now to sacrifice their lives for change and don't want reform; they simply want Mubarak to step down and they want his regime to remove itself. Law and order will not be restored until this happens.

The problem is that international and domestic media reports about Egyptian politics have always been coated with a great deal of cynicism. The people of Egypt have for far too long been denied basic democratic rights based on dangerous misconceptions promoted by the regime itself. First, that free and fair elections would lead to a sweeping victory of the Muslim Brotherhood and hence would lead to instability in the region and a new threat to Israel. And that the consequences of democracy in Egypt would also involve the "ethnic cleansing" of the country's Coptic Christian minority and the introduction of stoning and and other barbaric punishments.

But let's take a look at the role of the main "religio-political" groups in the 25 January protest and following protests. Many Salafist groups have denounced the uprising. The Muslim Brotherhood was until the last minute reluctant to participate in the protest movement. Even the Coptic Church urged its followers not to participate in Tuesday's protests.

Nonetheless, it was still the country's biggest protest since the 18 January 1977 upheaval – despite the absence of Egypt's main religious groups and institutes. During the protests, it is worth noting, no one chanted "Death to adulterers" or "Down with Israel". There were no Qurans or crosses on display – instead, protesters were peacefully chanting "Freedom, freedom" and waving the Egyptian flag.

For far too long, people inside and outside of Egypt have turned a blind eye to the regime's human rights violations due to their fear of the country's Islamists and, in particular, the Muslim Brotherhood.

The misconception that Islamists are waiting in line to seize power was based on the Brotherhood winning 88 seats (20 per cent) in the 2005 parliamentary elections. But many observers believe this number was carefully decided by the Mubarak regime itself to send a message to western superpowers about the supposed threat from Islamists – in order to resist the Bush administration's pressure to democratise the country further.

The number was big enough to scare everyone they wanted to scare, but still not big enough for the Brothers to drive any real change in Egyptian politics. Interestingly, the regime "allocated" no seats at all for the Muslim Brotherhood in the 2010 elections, by which time US pressure – under Obama – had reduced.

It's true that Egypt has seen growing conservatism and even extremism during the past three decades, in what has been described as a soft Islamic revolution. However, this growing trend has found a fertile ground to grow in the regime's oppressive environment and systematic policies of impoverishing its people, such as its determined refusal to enforce a fair minimum wage despite a court ruling to that effect.

It seems, however, that the wave of Islamophobia, or in this case "Islamistphobia", that hit the world after the September 11 attacks drove many to turn a blind eye to their ideals of freedom, liberty and human rights, including President Obama, who has always raised the banner of change and liberty but has been a great deal softer with the 82-year-old Egyptian despot than his predecessor.

If Washington continues to support "reform" rather than "change" in Egypt, it gives way to Islamists to present themselves as the only saviour to the Egyptian people, and risks having a confrontational, radical Islamist regime and a populace full of bitterness towards a nation, the United States, that refused to support the struggle for basic human rights, and chose instead to support a dictator who committed countless crimes against his own people.

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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