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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Low fat, full fat: why the diet industry keeps changing its mind

A new report illustrates just how disillusioned the diet industry has become, at the expense of everyone else.

Another year, another wave of dietary fads. Most seem to surface in the summer, when new nutritional advice claims to provide the panacea to everyone’s health woes: “Eat clean get lean!” “The simple secret of intermittent fasting!” “The paleo way is the only way!” “Six weeks to a super you!”

However, despite the barrage of diet books, the expansion of nutrition research and the growth of education about healthy living, global obesity has more than doubled since 1980.

It may be that this is due to the conflicting information constantly issued from the diet industry. “Eat lots of protein – it’ll speed up your metabolism!” “Too much protein will damage your kidneys – reduce your protein intake!” “Superfoods are a vital source of antioxidants!” “Superfoods aren’t so super at all!” “Don’t snack it will make you pile on the pounds!” “You should snack – it’ll stop you from binge eating!” It’s no wonder people aren’t sure what to eat.

The UK launched its first dietary guidelines in 1994, which have since been continuously revised to form the guide now known as “The Eatwell Plate”. The dietary guidelines recommend plentiful carbohydrates “such as rice, bread, pasta and potatoes”, at least five portions of fruits and vegetables, some protein, some milk, some dairy and minimal saturated fat.

However, a recent report serves to highlight the confusion consumers face when it comes to food: it claims that the official advice on low-fat diets is outright wrong, even damaging.

Led by the National Obesity Forum and the Public Health Collaboration, the report (not peer-reviewed, it’s worth noting) attacked a host of official health proposals. It claims that “eating fat does not make you fat”, and criticises Eatwell Plate’s small fat allowance. The report also stated that saturated fats have been unfairly demonised, as there is allegedly little evidence to suggest that they cause heart disease. Meanwhile sugar consumption should be dialled down to zero, apparently, and calories shouldn’t be counted, as an abundance of them won’t cause obesity. Also, forget about the exercise - apparently a bad diet can’t be outrun, according to the report.

Professor David Haslam, chairman of the National Obesity Forum, said: “As a clinician, treating patients all day every day, I quickly realised that guidelines from on high, suggesting high-carbohydrate, low-fat diets were the universal panacea, were deeply flawed. Current efforts have failed – the proof being that obesity levels are higher than they have ever been, and show no chance of reducing despite the best efforts of government and scientists.”

Dr Aseem Malhotra, consultant cardiologist and founding member of the Public Health Collaboration reinforced this by saying the guidelines were “perhaps the biggest mistake in modern medical history, resulting in devastating consequences for public health.” Under current dietary guidelines, obesity levels have indeed increased in the UK, with nearly two-thirds of men and women overweight or obese, costing the economy more than £3bn per year.

In the face of such starkly opposed sides - both backed by seemingly reputable experts who claim all their research is based on empirical evidence - what are consumers meant to do?

The vilification of fat

In 1983, it was recommended that overall dietary fat consumption should make up only 30 per cent of total daily energy intake – 10 per cent of which, at most, should come from saturated fat.

The recommendations came from a number of research papers published at the time, which suggested a link between saturated fat intake and increased levels of LDL cholesterol – the cholesterol which has been connected to increased risk of heart disease, stroke and atherosclerosis.

An even simpler reason for the suggestions boiled down to this: fat has more calories per gram than carbohydrates – nine calories per gram versus four, to be exact. This shape to future official guidelines, and gave birth to the low-fat high-carbohydrate mantra. Fat was cemented as public enemy number one.

As a result, the fat eliminated from people’s diets was to be supplemented with an increased intake of carbohydrates. Tipping the scales in favour of carbohydrates were promises of weight loss as a result of higher fibre content, elevated levels of serotonin to aid sleep and boosts in mood from feeling fuller.

But obesity levels continued to soar, and health experts shifted their focus to the next culprit: carbs.

The low-carb era

An analysis by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition combined the results of 21 studies and found that “saturated fat was not associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease”. Other studies demonstrated the positive effect on testosterone levels in men from increased saturated fat intake, and have noted increased levels of triglycerides (the stuff that makes you fat) from lower fat diets.

As a result, dieticians developed a deep suspicion of carbs, and sugar in particular, and diets like the Atkins regime became more and more popular.

In part, the report by the National Obesity Forum and Public Health Collaboration uses the research that propped up these low-carb high-fat diets as a means by which to attack the general consensus surrounding healthy eating. Dr Malhotra, who led the latest report, previously worked in a pressure group called Action on Sugar – a group that has tried to get the food industry to reduce the amount of sugar added to food.

The reasoning goes something like this: guidelines encouraging greater carbohydrate consumption are oblivious to the fact that sugars constitute a vast amount of refined carbohydrates. By cranking up the sugar intake we ratchet up the risk of type 2 diabetes; this in turn could spark further health problems including obesity.

The logic seems sound, and yet obesity levels have continued to soar in the face of this research. The notion that all sugar should be avoided also ignores the fact that our brains require a significant amount of glucose for optimal functioning.

Everything in moderation

In the face of an industry that can’t make up its mind about how people should eat, it’s no wonder obesity levels have grown to epidemic proportions. So what can be done?

Professor Susan Jebb, the government’s obesity adviser, believes that the current debate needs to expand beyond the battle between carbohydrates and fat. She said: “We’re eating too many calories – if we want to tackle obesity people do need to eat fewer calories and that means less fat and less sugar.” And she’s right. If decades of research have pointed to anything assertively, it’s that calories count, and paying attention to portion sizes could take us a long way.

Both fat and carbohydrates are necessary for our bodies to function. The solution? Enjoy everything in moderation. Eat fruits without fearing fructose, don’t throw away the egg yolk, get a decent amount of protein and yes, you should have your slice of cake too.