How Britain can help in Egypt and Tunisia

The most revolutionary force in the Arab world at this stage is freed-up wide-market capitalism, not

What we are seeing in the Middle East is an uprising, a rupture, not yet a revolution. Two heads of government have left. But there is not yet fundamental regime change. Protests are spreading to Algeria, Libya and Bahrain, but there is as yet no evidence of the regimes there failing to contain the protests with their brutal methods.

Foreign Secretary William Hague was in Bahrain last week, but only to meet the rulers of the "kingdom". Britain's new ruling elite has extensive financial links with the Gulf states. The government had to pay lip-service to supporting the people's uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, as they were so massive and so peaceful. But Britain's core financial interests will come under threat if democracy spreads to challenge Islamic autocracies under despotic rulers. The UK economy is overdependent on City income from servicing the ruling elites in the region, as well as exports of arms and construction business. If the Egyptian and Tunisian example really does spread, the policy-business nexus of the British establishment will be profoundly shaken.

The excitement over Facebook and Twitter is silly. This is as much a workers' protest as that of young middle-class people and students, Paris 1968 meets Gdansk 1980. It is not 1989 because, unlike the evaporation of the Soviet Union, Saudi Arabia, Syria and other dictatorships, Sunni states are still very much in office.

What lessons are there for terrorism? We should not forget that the key intellectual sources of inspiration for Islamist violence are all Egyptian – such as Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb, the main advocate of Jew-killing, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, a crucial organiser of terrorist attacks, first on Muslim leaders he felt were ready to compromise with modernity, and then on the west itself. Indeed, two of the most historic acts of Islamist terrorism – the assassination of Anwar al-Sadat in 1981 and the 1997 Luxor massacre are the product of Islamist Egyptian terrorism.

We need simply to be watchful. I do not read Arabic, and rely on French scholars such as Gilles Kepel, and to a lesser extent Olivier Roy, who is too ready to be a Dr Pangloss when it comes to the Muslim Brotherhood. But, like with the Portuguese or Spanish Communist Parties after the end of authoritarian rule in the Iberian Peninsula in the mid-1970s, the threat posed by the Muslim Brotherhood may be exaggerated. If the Brothers' inspiration is Turkey, or even Malaysia, then Islam and democratic politics may come together in a way that is not directly threatening to universal values, or at least no more threatening than hard-right-wing Catholic or Protestant puritan political parties have been in postwar – let alone pre-war – European history.

Who's for anti-Semitism?

However, we have a duty to return to the texts or core charters and programmes of Islamist parties. That of Hamas, for example, is openly anti-Semitic, in a fashion that would have done Alfred Rosenberg proud. I am all for jaw-jaw, but it is jaw-dropping to read the pulsating hate of Jews and of the right for Israel to exist contained in most Islamist charters and programmes.

Can the democratic world accept a post-Mubarak politics that is rooted in ideological anti-Semitism? Whatever the duty of solidarity to Palestinians under occupation (not the case in Gaza, it should be noted), it cannot displace any European's duty to resist the racism of anti-Semitism. So supping with a long spoon is wise in many international circumstances.

In the early 1990s, Europe made as big a mistake as its failure to intervene to stop Slobodan Milosevic's genocidal militias in the Balkans, when Paris was allowed to encourage Algerian generals to crush the political movement that led to Islamist gains in elections in Algeria. However, western intellectuals should avoid becoming useful fools, like poor Professor Richard Falk of Princeton, who wrote in the New York Times in February 1979: "The depiction of Khomeini as fanatical seems happily false. His close advisers are moderate."

Inshallah, we may be protected from such gullibility from intellectuals who do not speak or read Arabic, and think the necessary chasing of a bad head of government is sufficient to usher in democracy. How we miss Fred Halliday's wisdom! He, for sure, would have warned that the Khomeini scenario could not be discounted.

But is it not an equal arrogance and error to grant these elderly Islamist organisations the right to speak for all Egyptians or Palestinians? What can we do to help other political and social organisations, such as trade unions, scholars, journalists? The big European political foundations helped develop autonomous democratic, party-political organisations in Europe after the end of Mediterranean fascism and eastern European communism, or in Latin America during the transition from military rule following the end of the Argentinian and Brazilian juntas from 1980 onwards.

So, we need to ask the British government, working with European and other democracies, to invest fast and invest now in creating democratic space in both Egypt and Tunisia. We give over £1bn of DfID aid to India, even as India has its own costly development programme and has more billionaires and millionaires than Britain. Britain provides precisely zero development help to Egypt and Tunisia. We should have a new policy for Egypt and the Maghreb countries, particularly Tunisia, which is a Phoenician, largely secular culture, much more focused on Europe than on its African hinterland.

Labour could make the difference

These are our neighbours, if we can accept that we are part of Europe's future instead of a fretting, fussing, inward-looking island offshore from mainland Europe. Can the left accept that Egypt and Tunisia need more, not less market economics? Capitalist development was taken over by Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, whose extended family helped itself to 1 per cent of Tunisian GDP. The army in Egypt owns huge chunks of the economy. To remove these parasitical forces and allow citizens to have proper jobs is a priority. The most revolutionary force in the Arab world at this stage of its development is freed-up wide-market capitalism, not socialism or liberalism.

But workers need help. So can the British government, despite its ideological hostility to worker organisation, agree to use the ILO and international trade union bodies to help create an effective trade union support programme, working through the many Arabic speakers in unions in Britain?

It is a shame that Britain has not spent a penny on development aid to support democratic forces in Egypt and Tunisia. We have sent billions of pointless overseas aid in cash to China, but given nothing for democratic forces in Tunisia.

The red carpet was rolled out for the pharaohs of Cairo and Tunis. Now they have gone. William Hague announced a miserable £5m for Tunisia on his trip there last week. That is less than the bonuses British banks award their own pharaohs, or what hedge funds give to the Conservative Party. Once again, there is a turning point in history. Once again, Britain may fail the rendezvous.

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham (Labour) and a former Europe minister.

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
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Trident is dangerous – and not for the reasons you think

Fixating on Trident is like replacing the guest bathroom while your own toilet flush doesn't work. 

Backing Trident is supposed to make a politician look hard, realistic and committed to Britain’s long history of military defence.That’s why the Tories delighted in holding a debate on renewing the nuclear weapons system in June 2016.

But it was the Tory Prime Minister who floundered this weekend, after it emerged that three weeks before that debate, an unarmed Trident missile misfired - and veered off towards the United States instead of Africa. Downing Street confirmed May knew about the error before the parliamentary debate. 

Trident critics have mobilised. Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, called the revelation “serious”. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a longstanding opponent of nuclear weapons, said the error was “pretty catastrophic”. 

The idea of a rogue nuclear missile heading for the White House may have fuelled the disarmament movement. But even if you enjoy the game of nuclear poker, fixating on Trident is dangerous. Because while MPs rehearse the same old Cold War arguments, the rest of the world has moved on. 

Every hour debating Trident is an hour not spent debating cyber warfare. As Peter Pomerantsev prophetically wrote in April 2015, Russian military theory has in recent years assumed that it would not be possible to match the West militarily, but wars can be won in the “psychosphere”, through misinformation.

Since the Russian cyber attacks during the US election, few can doubt this strategy is paying off - and that our defence systems have a long way to catch up. As shadow Defence secretary, Emily Thornberry described this as “the crucial test” of the 21st century. The government has pledged £1.9bn in cyber security defences over the next five years, but will that be enough? Nerds in a back room are not as thrilling as nuclear submarines, but how they are deployed matters too.

Secondly, there is the cost. Even if you back the idea of a nuclear deterrent, renewing Trident is a bit like replacing the guest bathroom when the regular loo is hardly flushing. A 2015 Centreforum paper described it as “gold-plated” - if your idea of gold-plated is the ability to blow up “a minimum of eight cities”. There is a gory but necessary debate to be had about alternatives which could free up more money to be spent on conventional forces. 

Finally, a nuclear deterrent is only credible if you intend to use it. For this reason, the British government needs to focus on protecting the infrastructure of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, now under threat from a US President who declared it “obsolete”. Eastern Europe has been nervous about the bear on its borders for some time - the number of Poles joining the country’s 120 paramilitary organisations has tripled in two years.  

Simply attacking Trident on safety grounds will only get you so far - after all, the argument behind renewing Trident is that the status quo will not do. Furthermore, for all the furore over a misfired Trident missile, it’s hard to imagine that should the hour come, the biggest worry for the crew of a nuclear submarine will be the small chance of a missile going in the wrong direction. That would be missing the rather higher chance of global nuclear apocalypse.

Anti-Trident MPs will make the most of May's current embarrassment. But if they can build bridges with the more hawkish members of the opposition, and criticise the government's defence policy on its own terms, they will find plenty more ammunition. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.