Leader: We must support the democratic process in Egypt, even if we dislike its outcome

The government for once should take a stand on a matter of principle.

The uprisings that have swept the Arab world since December 2010 have initiated a painful struggle for the citizens of those countries. They have also thrown received political wisdom in the UK into doubt. Liberals have been forced to choose between supporting autocrats such as the former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and welcoming democracy – even if it delivers results they do not like.
 
Recent events in Cairo have shown just what is at stake. President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, elected in June 2012, was proving himself unable to govern “for all Egyptians”, as he had promised in his victory speech. Instead, he set about trying to rewrite the constitution to reflect the values of his Islamist political movement and did nothing to remove the repressive state apparatus of the Mubarak regime. Discontent grew, and in June this year millions of Egyptians once again took to the streets to demand that he give up power.
 
Yet the military’s removal of Mr Morsi on 3 July should be seen for what it was: a coup. Egyptian liberals who supported it and outside observers such as Tony Blair, who described it as a choice between “intervention or chaos”, were being either naive or disingenuous if they claimed this could be accomplished without a bloodbath. The violence of the past weeks – the massacres as state security forces attempted to clear Muslim Brotherhood supporters from sit-ins in Cairo – was inevitable. It suits the members of Egypt’s governing clique, who saw their financial and political interests threatened by the democratic uprising of the past two years, to provoke the Muslim Brotherhood into violent, sectarian reprisals. It justifies a further crackdown under the guise of fighting “terrorism”, a move to which repressive Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia have already offered their moral and financial support.
 
At the very least, Egypt risks a return to the repression of the Mubarak era, when the Muslim Brotherhood was forced underground and when its existence was used by the regime to justify its stranglehold on political life. Worse still, it raises the prospect of an all-out civil war, as we saw in Algeria during the 1990s after the military intervened to stop an Islamist party that had won the first round of the parliamentary elections from assuming power.
 
The British government argues that there is little it can do but watch. On 19 August, the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said that he thought the conflict would “take years, maybe decades, to play out”. Yet through the EU – which is a major trading partner of Egypt – we could put pressure on the army to step back from the brink and restart the democratic process. Mr Hague mentioned a review of “what aid and assistance we give to Egypt in the future”; the US, too, should consider this. (President Obama will not utter the word “coup” because it would trigger the removal of the yearly $1.5bn of US aid to Egypt. He prefers to call the military’s actions an “intervention”.) Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, has gone further, questioning whether all arms export licences granted to Egypt should be revoked. Britain should not be supplying the weapons used to repress peaceful protesters.
 
Beyond that, the government for once should take a stand on a matter of principle. Either Britain supports democracy abroad or it doesn’t. For more than ten years we have been told that jihadism poses a mortal threat to our way of life and that we must fight wars against it. Yet what kind of message does it send to Islamists if we support or at least fail to condemn their exclusion from peaceful democratic politics? It would be wise to remember that an earlier wave of jihadists – including the former Muslim Brotherhood member Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is now head of al- Qaeda –were radicalised by the repression of Islamist political movements in Egypt and elsewhere.
 
Hard as it may be to accept, the only way to peace and stability in the Middle East is to respect the democratic process – even if it delivers results we may not like.
Former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak is seen behind bars during his retrial. Photo: Getty

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

0800 7318496