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

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The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood