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

Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

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.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

0800 7318496