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John Pilger: The Egyptian revolt is coming home

Western leaders should be quaking in their boots.

The uprising in Egypt is our theatre of the possible. It is what people across the world have struggled for and their thought controllers have feared. Western commentators invariably misuse "we" and "us" to speak on behalf of those with power who see the rest of humanity as useful or expendable. The "we" and "us" are universal now. Tunisia came first, but the spectacle always promised to be Egyptian.

As a reporter, I have felt this over the years. At Tahrir ("liberation") Square in Cairo in 1970, the coffin of the great nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser bobbed on an ocean of people who, under him, had glimpsed freedom. One of them, a teacher, described the disgraced past as "grown men chasing cricket balls for the British at the Cairo Club". The parable was for all Arabs and much of the world. Three years later, the Egyptian Third Army crossed the Suez Canal and overran Israel's fortresses in Sinai. Returning from this battlefield to Cairo, I joined a million others in Liberation Square. Their restored respect was like a presence - until the United States rearmed the Israelis and beckoned defeat.

Thereafter, President Anwar Sadat became America's man through the usual billion-dollar bribery and, for this, he was assassinated in 1981. Under his successor, Hosni Mubarak, dissenters came to Liberation Square at their peril. The latest US-Israeli project of Mubarak, routinely enriched by Washington's bagmen, is the building of an underground wall behind which the Palestinians of Gaza are to be imprisoned for ever.

The grisly peacemaker

Today, the problem for the people in Liberation Square lies not in Egypt. On 5 February, the New York Times reported: "The Obama administration formally threw its weight behind a gradual transition in Egypt, backing attempts by the country's vice-president, General Omar Suleiman, to broker a compromise with opposition groups . . . Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it was important to support Mr Sulei­man as he seeks to defuse street protests . . ."

Having rescued him from would-be assassins, Suleiman is, in effect, Mubarak's bodyguard. His other distinction, documented in Jane Mayer's investigative book The Dark Side, is as supervisor of US "rendition flights" to Egypt, where people are tortured by order of the CIA. When President Obama was asked in 2009 if he regarded Mubarak as authoritarian, his swift reply was "no". He called him a peacemaker, echoing that other great liberal tribune, Tony Blair, to whom Mubarak is "a force for good".

The grisly Suleiman is now the peacemaker and force for good, the man of "compromise" who will oversee the "gradual transition" and "diffuse the protests". This attempt to suffocate the Egyptian revolt will depend on a substantial number of people, from businessmen to journalists to petty officials, who have provided the dictatorship's apparatus. In one sense, they mirror those in the western liberal class who backed Obama's "change you can believe in" and Blair's equally bogus "political Cinema­scope" (Henry Porter in the Guardian, 1995). No matter how different they appear, both groups are the domesticated backers and beneficiaries of the status quo.

In Britain, the BBC's Today programme is their voice. Here, serious diversions from the status quo are known as "Lord knows what". On 28 January the Washington correspondent Paul Adams declared, "The Americans are in a very difficult situation. They do want to see some kind of democratic reform but they are also conscious that they need strong leaders capable of making decisions. They regard President Mubarak as an absolute bulwark, a key strategic ally in the region.

“Egypt is the country, along with Israel, on which American Middle East diplomacy abso­lutely hinges. They don't want to see anything that smacks of a chaotic handover to frankly Lord knows what."

Fear of Lord-knows-what requires that the historical truth of US and British "diplomacy" as largely responsible for the suffering in the Middle East be suppressed or reversed. Forget the Balfour Declaration, which led to the im­position of expansionist Israel. Forget the secret Anglo-American sponsorship of jihadists as a "bulwark" against democratic control of oil. Forget the overthrow of democracy in Iran and the installation of the tyrant shah, and the slaughter and destruction in Iraq. Forget the US fighter jets, cluster bombs, white phosphorus and depleted uranium that are performance-tested on children in Gaza. And now, in the cause of preventing "chaos", forget the denial of almost every basic civil liberty in Omar Sulei­man's contrite "new" regime in Cairo.

Overtaken by events

The uprising in Egypt has discredited every western media stereotype about the Arabs. The courage, determination, eloquence and grace of those in Liberation Square contrast with "our" specious fear-mongering, with its al-Qaeda and Iran bogeys and iron-clad assumptions of the "moral leadership of the west". It is not surprising that the recent source of truth about the imperial abuse of the Middle East, WikiLeaks, is itself subjected to craven and petty abuse in those self-congratulating newspapers that set the limits of elite liberal debate on both sides of the Atlantic. Perhaps they are worried. Public awareness is rising and bypassing them.

In Washington and London, the regimes are fragile and barely democratic. Having long burned down societies abroad, they are now doing something similar at home, with lies and without a mandate. To their victims, the resistance in Liberation Square must seem an inspiration. "We won't stop," said a young Egyptian woman on TV. "We won't go home." Try kettling a million people in the centre of London, bent on civil disobedience, and try imagining it could not happen.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 14 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.