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.