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
Getty
Show Hide image

Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear