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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By refusing to stand down, Jeremy Corbyn has betrayed the British working classes

The most successful Labour politicians of the last decades brought to politics not only a burning desire to improve the lot of the working classes but also an understanding of how free market economies work.

Jeremy Corbyn has defended his refusal to resign the leadership of the Labour Party on the grounds that to do so would be betraying all his supporters in the country at large. But by staying on as leader of the party and hence dooming it to heavy defeat in the next general election he would be betraying the interests of the working classes this country. More years of Tory rule means more years of austerity, further cuts in public services, and perpetuation of the gross inequality of incomes. The former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Seema Malhotra, made the same point when she told Newsnight that “We have an unelectable leader, and if we lose elections then the price of our failure is paid by the working people of this country and their families who do not have a government to stand up for them.”

Of course, in different ways, many leading figures in the Labour movement, particularly in the trade unions, have betrayed the interests of the working classes for several decades. For example, in contrast with their union counterparts in the Scandinavian countries who pressurised governments to help move workers out of declining industries into expanding sectors of the economy, many British trade union leaders adopted the opposite policy. More generally, the trade unions have played a big part in the election of Labour party leaders, like Corbyn, who were unlikely to win a parliamentary election, thereby perpetuating the rule of Tory governments dedicated to promoting the interests of the richer sections of society.

And worse still, even in opposition Corbyn failed to protect the interests of the working classes. He did this by his abysmal failure to understand the significance of Tory economic policies. For example, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer had finished presenting the last budget, in which taxes were reduced for the rich at the expense of public services that benefit everybody, especially the poor, the best John McConnell could do – presumably in agreement with Corbyn – was to stand up and mock the Chancellor for having failed to fulfill his party’s old promise to balance the budget by this year! Obviously neither he nor Corbyn understood that had the government done so the effects on working class standards of living would have been even worse. Neither of them seems to have learnt that the object of fiscal policy is to balance the economy, not the budget.

Instead, they have gone along with Tory myth about the importance of not leaving future generations with the burden of debt. They have never asked “To whom would future generations owe this debt?” To their dead ancestors? To Martians? When Cameron and his accomplices banged on about how important it was to cut public expenditures because the average household in Britain owed about £3,000, they never pointed out that this meant that the average household in Britain was a creditor to the tune of about the same amount (after allowing for net overseas lending). Instead they went along with all this balanced budget nonsense. They did not understand that balancing the budget was just the excuse needed to justify the prime objective of the Tory Party, namely to reduce public expenditures in order to be able to reduce taxes on the rich. For Corbyn and his allies to go along with an overriding objective of balancing the budget is breathtaking economic illiteracy. And the working classes have paid the price.

One left-wing member of the panel on Question Time last week complained that the interests of the working classes were ignored by “the elite”. But it is members of the elite who have been most successful in promoting the interests of the working classes. The most successful pro-working class governments since the war have all been led mainly by politicians who would be castigated for being part of the elite, such as Clement Atlee, Harold Wilson, Tony Crosland, Barbara Castle, Richard Crossman, Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey, Tony Blair, and many others too numerous to list. They brought to politics not only a burning desire to improve the lot of the working classes (from which some of them, like me, had emerged) and reduce inequality in society but also an understanding of how free market economies work and how to deal with its deficiencies. This happens to be more effective than ignorant rhetoric that can only stroke the egos and satisfy the vanity of demagogues

People of stature like those I have singled out above seem to be much more rare in politics these days. But there is surely no need to go to other extreme and persist with leaders like Jeremy Corbyn, a certain election loser, however pure his motives and principled his ambitions.

Wilfred Beckerman is an Emeritus Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, and was, for several years in the 1970s, the economics correspondent for the New Statesman