Friday, January 28, 2011

Egypt faces the crossroads

Egypt has always been seen as the leading Arab state.  Not being flush with oil wealth, it was the centre of anti-colonialism and Arab nationalism under the populist dictatorship of Nasser, who confiscated the Suez Canal for the state and waged war on Israel.   After failing miserably to destroy Israel, but losing the Sinai Peninsula to it, he was deposed and replaced by Anwar Sadat, who had another attempt at Israel before deciding enough was enough - and agreeing a peace treaty, which resulted in Israel swapping land (Sinai) for peace.  

Sadat was assassinated by an Islamist and replaced by his deputy, Hosni Mubarak, who took a less friendly view of Israel, but was sustained by the US pouring more aid money into Egypt than any other country bar Israel (and more recently Iraq).  Mubarak was sustained because the alternatives were seen to be Soviet and then Iranian backed Islamists.   

Let's be clear, an Islamist run Egypt would pose a threat not only to Israel, but could be a base for terrorist activities in Europe and beyond.  It would have a stranglehold over shipping through the Suez Canal, and be leading the largest Arab state by population.   The Iranian military religious dictatorship is already claiming a new Middle East, Islamic dominated, is coming to the fore, let's hope not.

For if it were to happen, do not be deluded that it will cost in lives, and could create a new age of conflict that makes Iraq and Afghanistan seem like they were easy.

Yet the Mubarak regime is far from good, it was relatively open economically, but used torture, suppressed free political expression and has been corrupt and kleptocratic (although not as bad as some).  It has been moderately benign as far as dictatorships go, but it is hardly an endorsement that it is better than the alternative.   So the time has come, as relative moderate secular Egyptians demand political freedom, and the dignity and respect of being able to challenge government, politicians, political appointees and the regime.

My hope is that he steps down, announces free and fair elections, and provides the space for real political pluralism to flourish in a country where more suppression may only embolden Islamists.

For the future of not only Egypt, but Israel, the Middle East and the world is deeply affected by what happens in Cairo.   I sincerely hope that those on the left, who with some justification, criticise and despise the Mubarak regime (although I suspect somewhat motivated by anti-Americanism) will not celebrate or support an Islamist takeover of Egypt.  

For if it is a bad dream for Egyptians to be suppressed by the Mubarak regime, it would be one of our worst nightmares to have an Ayatollah of Cairo.

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