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Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Egypt - "May God help everyone"

The words of Omar Suleiman, at the end of his terse speech announcing Hosni Mubarak's resignation as Egyptian President, could not be more poignant. I for one am praying for the people of Egypt - that they get what they want and that they are safe. Trouble is - they will probably need divine intervention to come out of this situation with either.

International Relations theory is dominated by the two main schools of thought, realism and liberalism. Both appear to accept that the international political system is anarchical. Realists believe that this anarchy neccessitates a self-help system in which states maximise their security and relative power position. Liberalists, however, believe that the best way to respond to anarchy is for states to co-operate, using international organisations and trade to create a situation where states have too much to lose if they enter conflict with each other.

As part of this, Liberalists believe in cosmopolitanism -  the ideology that all human ethnic groups belong to a single community based on a shared morality - and a major part of that is democracy. This is why so many in the West have been so excited about what is going on in Egypt. From a military backed dictatorship we see the possibility of democracy emerging and it seems important to everyone that democracy is allowed to flourish.

Here is the problem though, and the best way to introduce how much of a problem it is would be by pointing out that George W Bush was a neo-liberal who also believed democracy and cosmopolitanism was best. Iraq after the 2003 invasion contained none of the institutions you need to grow a democracy from. There was no independent judiciary, no experience nor Parliamentary set-up where government could be held-to-account and scrutinized, and no distinterested forces for social order either (e.g. army and police). Hence the difficulties you see today.

The above three characteristics hold in Egypt too, and therein could lie a problem. We in the West could help them, but will they accept our help? Remember, we have (because of a realist belief that General Mubarak could serve our purposes in the region) supported the dictatorship they have shown to so detest for the last 30 years. So who would they trust?

Realists have spotted a further problem here. It's the "careful what you wish for" problem. If the Egyptian people get a free vote they could well vote in a government hostile to the West. This doesn't necessarily need to be an Islamist party such as the Muslim Brotherhood either, because there are new powers in the region that you don't have to be Islamist to get into bed with. Saudi Arabia threatened to replace every penny of aid that the US were threatening to withdraw last week, because they could. The US know that and the competing parties in what will hopefully be a peaceful upcoming election know that too.

Which is why need to turn to the Muslim Brotherhood. Hitherto banned in Egypt they have gone down the well-trodden line of working very hard on social projects to build up support all over the country - leading to them having something like 25% of the vote in their pockets already. This could grow should they offer a viable governing programme.

Is the Muslim Brotherhood what the Liberalists wanted? We don't know a huge amount about them. Knee-jerk realists argue that Islam is not compatible with democracy so the Muslim Brotherhood would go the same way as Hamas have done in Gaza (throwing opposition politicians off the top of buildings just doesn't count as allowing yourself to be held to account in my book).

BUT Indonesia has a thriving democracy and is a Muslim country, so we can't make generalisations. The Muslim Brotherhood have been making the right noises. Added to that, they will know the world is watching, and may want to show that Islam IS compatible with a fully functioning democracy. We will see. We certainly need to be careful about any interference in the election and need to work with whoever wins.

That leaves Israel. Binyamin Netanyahu started off making noises about putting his country on alert but was told in no uncertain terms by the UK and USA to tone down his rhetoric. The Muslim Brotherhood have promised to have a look at the treaty that Egypt has with Israel. They say they want to put it to a vote of the Egyptian people. They have never been able to vote for it before and for all we know Mubarak was essentially paid to support it instead of believing in it.

My advice to Israel is not to make the same mistake as I feel they have done with Hamas. Not negotiating with a group that don't recognise Israel is the wrong way round, you need to negotiate to persuade them TO recognise Israel. They should offer to work with whatever government is voted in across the Sinai border. The Liberalists in Israel should hold sway over the realists.

Whatever happens - Omar Suleiman is right - may God help everyone.

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