President Morsi at the UN General Assembly in September. Photograph: Getty Images
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Ignore the neocons, says Mehdi Hasan – I refuse to give up on Egypt, or the Arab spring

Long live the Arab Spring - despite the murmurs about Morsi’s “pharaonic” decree in Egypt and the Syrian bloodbath, I refuse to lose faith in the people of the Arab world.

Voltaire wrote that “optimism is the madness of insisting that all is well when we are miserable”. With the residents of Gaza and Homs still burying their dead and tens of thousands of protesters in Cairo marching on Tahrir Square, there doesn’t seem to be much light or hope in the Middle East. Pessimists abound. Over the past year or so, the doom-mongers and naysayers of the western commentariat have fallen over one another to try to write the definitive obituary of the Arab revolts, which, lest we forget, kicked off in December 2010 with the self-immolation of a young Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi.

Cynicism has been married to cliché: “The Arab spring is giving way to an Arab winter,” wrote the self-professed neoconservative Douglas Murray in a Spectator cover story in November 2011. “The Arab spring is a misnomer,” added the US neocon Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post in July 2012. “This is an Islamist ascendancy . . .”

Divisive trigger

I concede that recent events in Egypt don’t help those of us who desperately want to be optimistic about the future of the region. On 22 November, fresh from his internationally acclaimed role in securing a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, the Egyptian president (and ex-Muslim Brotherhood apparatchik) Mohamed Morsi decided to issue a decree giving himself sweeping powers, including the authority to “take the necessary actions and measures to protect the country and the goals of the revolution”.

Overnight, his decree triggered sit-ins, dem - onstrations and clashes. “He has been a very divisive figure,” Dr H A Hellyer, a research fellow at the Brookings Institution, tells me, noting how Morsi won only 52 per cent of the vote in June’s election. “He doesn’t have revolutionary legitimacy.”

Is Morsi a modern-day Cincinnatus, the 5th-century Roman dictator who relinquished power after just 16 days and resigned the moment he had defeated the city’s enemies? Or even Egypt’s Abraham Lincoln, the president who amassed such huge powers during the American civil war, only to surrender them all when the fighting ended in 1865? Only time will tell. But I refuse to give up on Egypt – or, for that matter, the Arab spring. Not yet, at least.

For a start, shouldn’t we be celebrating the backlash against Morsi’s decree and how instant it was? The president’s power grab was not just illegitimate, but ill-judged. His justice minister, Ahmed Mekky, went on television to object to the scope of the decree. The onetime presidential candidate and Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, a hero of Egypt’s liberal minority, took to Twitter to accuse Morsi of usurping “all state powers” and appointing himself “Egypt’s new pharaoh”. Wael Ghonim, the internet activist who became a crucial figure in the anti-Mubarak uprising of 2011, joined the chorus of angry critics. “Power corrupts,” he tweeted on 23 November. “Absolute power corrupts absolutely!”

As Egypt’s top judges threatened to go on strike, thousands of protesters gathered in Tahrir Square on 27 November, repeating the chant that became the defining slogan of the demonstrations against Hosni Mubarak: “The people want the downfall of the regime.” Second, at the time of writing, the backlash looks like it might be working. Morsi has begun to perform a David-Cameron-type U-turn, claiming his new powers are much narrower and more temporary than the announcement originally indicated.

This pharaoh, it seems, isn’t immune to political or popular pressure.

Remember: just 21 months have elapsed since the fall of Mubarak, who ruled the country with an iron fist for 30 years, and just five months since the election of Morsi. “It’s going to take some time” for Egypt to adapt to democracy, says Hellyer, who lives in Cairo. “There was always going to be a lot of trauma.”

In May this year, I took part in a debate at the Oxford Union on the future of the Arab spring. The cynics and fearmongers were represented that evening by the Israeli historian Benny Morris, the Daily Telegraph’s hawk-in-chief, Con Coughlin, and the retired US general Keith Dayton. Their argument boiled down to two complaints: why do Muslim Arabs keep voting for Islamist parties? And why aren’t we seeing much more change in the Middle East, at a much quicker pace?

Dayton emphasised this latter point in particular. I had to point out to him that his own country, the United States, won independence from Great Britain in 1776; it took another 89 years to abolish slavery and another hundred years after that to secure equal voting rights for African Americans.

Taking the long view

It’s worth noting that, compared to the transitions in Afghanistan and Iraq, which were subjected to foreign military interventions and occupation, the Arab spring has been a success.

Tens of thousands have perished in Afghanistan over the past decade; in Iraq, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children have been shot, slashed and bombed to death. By contrast, Egypt and Tunisia have been quite stable.

Yes, Syria continues to burn but Assad cannot survive much longer, the Bahrainis continue to revolt against their brutal royal rulers, and in Jordan thousands of protesters took to the streets in the middle of November for the first time to call for an end to King Abdullah’s rule.

“It is too soon to say,” the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai is said to have remarked when asked, in 1971, for his view on the success of the French Revolution of 1789. In our 24/7 age, we need a dose of such long-termism; revolutions are measured in years and decades, not weeks and months. Yes, the stakes are high in Egypt and yes, Morsi, like every other autocratic leader, Islamist or otherwise, is not to be trusted. Power, after all, corrupts. But do you know who I trust? The Egyptians. And the Bahrainis. And the Jordanians. And the Syrians. Whatever the season, spring or winter, they will have their freedom.

Mehdi Hasan is political director of the Huffington Post and an NS contributing writer. This piece also appears at the Huffington Post here

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The family in peril

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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