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10 February 2011

Now the Arab world is teaching the west about democracy

The west could – and should – learn from the uprisings in the Middle East.

By John Chalcraft

Isn’t the west supposed to teach “the rest” in matters democratic? The mass, popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt are proving otherwise.

We can learn a great deal about initiative, the use of social networking IT, solidarity, self-organisation, non-violence, shrewdness and sheer bravery from the hundreds of thousands in the Arab world who are standing firm for bread and freedom in the face of riot police, thugs, injury and even death.

More strikingly, however, these Arab protests are shining the spotlight on some of the west’s less-than-democratic activities.

In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy is under increasing pressure to sack his own foreign minister, after it came out that she had accepted trips on the private jet of a tycoon close to the ousted Tunisian dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. The French government, moreover, authorised delivery of tear gas grenades for use by Tunisia’s murderous security forces as late as 12 January.

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Also newly publicised are Israel’s close connections – including a secret hotline in daily use – to Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s new vice-president, a key figure (as head of intelligence) in Mubarak’s hated dictatorship.

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In the UK we don’t come off much better. As the world digests claims that Mubarak’s family amassed tens of billions of dollars in personal wealth through corruption, and that his regime (according to leaked US embassy cables) engaged in widespread police brutality and torture, our very own ex-PM Tony Blair was extolling him last week as “immensely courageous and a force for good”. How did we ever tolerate such a grotesque man?

The depth of US collaboration with this sclerotic dictatorship is also caught in the spotlight. It turns out, for example, that the US-approved torture in Egypt of one Ibn Sheikh al-Libi resulted in the fake information about Iraqi connections with al-Qaeda that General Colin Powell then used before the United Nations to make the case for the illegal, catastrophic invasion of Iraq in 2003.

In short, the anti-democratic and sordid system of western geopolitics, so assiduously cultivated, usually behind closed doors, by our own politicians, is brightly illuminated by these inspiring protests. Egyptians have dared to dream against seemingly impossible odds. Perhaps we, too, in catching up with our Arab teachers, can dare to imagine how our corrupt and anti-democratic geopolitics could actually be changed.

John Chalcraft is a reader in the history and politics of empire/imperialism at the London School of Economics.