So, in February I wrote a Kings of War post about the developing situation in Egypt, in which I suggested that the Egyptian people were facing some unpalatable choices.
I received the normal amount of KoW stick, which was and is all to the good.
Events in Tahir Square mean that it is timely to revisit some of the issues I raised in February.
For western observers, we still have a problem. The Egyptians took the democracy pill and took a monster dose of it. That’s potentially quite awkward. The transitional arrangements suited the west quite well. No strategic upheaval in the Middle East, no overt condemnation of Israel and a Muslim Brotherhood who seemed determined to play electoral politics with a measure of seriousness. This latter point should be far more nuanced than I have laid out – there are clearly a plurality of views within that organisation (some of which the west would be comfortable with, some very much less so). So, the potential pitfalls of an Islamic state in a strategically important place seemed to have been avoided, and the Muslim Brotherhood were playing ball with the military.
But beneath the surface several things have been going on. The first – according to human rights groups – is that the Egyptian military (and thus ruling elite) have become addicted to using military tribunals to try people they find offensive. Attendant to this form of justice are strong measures that don’t conform to any kind of western justice. This caused an underlay of resentment.
The second major thing that was going on was a clear divide between the Brotherhood (keen to play ball) and the ‘salafists’ (who really weren’t very keen to play ball at all). So, it’s a curious divide between those western governments used to be scared of, and those they’re now scared of. And it’s two visions of governance that both used to seem unpalatable, but which are now divided into sugary sweet, and sour as old lemony boots.
A second revolution (and the ongoing crackdown to try and prevent it) will place western policy-makers and diplomats in a difficult position. The soft-peddling of criticism of Bahrain had raised international eyebrows, and if the Field Marshall and his Generals keep going at their present rate the Syrians could happily moan that the double standards here were stark.
Aside a slightly tongue in cheek aside – please save us all from anyone in the FCO, MoD or Cabinet Office who is having any bright ideas about further interventions or supportive military or quasi military roles in the Middle East… we don’t have the money, and it is someone else’s turn to play global policeman. There’s only so much democratic love we can give, and I reckon the 370million quid’s worth of democracy we gave to Libya is more than our fair share.. sermon over.
But because it is bleak outside my office window, I’ll give you my bleak prognosis on democracy. If anyone is feeling chirpier, please chip in.
Students and scholars will often wax lyrical on democratic standards. Some of the more irritating ones will warble on about the Greek origins of pure democracy. Today’s standards I would argue are much lower, but beneath that bar lies a dark heart. And the standard is simple, it’s the three F’s:
‘Freedom from Fuckwittery’.
Because at the end of the day us ordinary folk, living ordinary lives are not much interested in heightened levels of participatory democracy, we just don’t want someone screwing up our lives. We like the freedom to be able to raise our voices about services that are important to us: so thanksSimon Burns MP for saying people expressing an opinion about the NHS are zombies (I will dust off my undead disposition, daily), and thanks to my local MP (in the same vein) for saying that anyone who wrote to him about the NHS reforms was a Stalinist. Offence duly taken – vote for you, duly lost. But to make a large leap to Egypt, the political nous of people who thought that torture and military tribunals in the wake of Mubarak was going to cut the mustard? D minus, try again.
Similarly, and I can only agree with my esteemed colleague David Betz on this, the imposition of so-called technocratic governments to resolve the economic crisis (be this at the state or supra-state level in Europe) has the large potential to cause political and societal backlash. The amount of political autonomy any of us has (in reality) is actually quite small, but to have that highlighted in 20ft neon lights is asking for a unhelpful response. For most of my lifetime the ‘three F’s rule of democracy’ was a distant barrier lying miles beneath where we sat. The fact that we can so obviously see this barrier in the near abroad, and across parts of the political union, in which we are a member is an interesting moment in our contemporary political history.
In certain parts of the Middle East tonight, wise heads are trying to work out how many people they’ll need to kill to prevail. They’ll also be trying to work out whether they’ll have anything to govern if they succeed. It’s fight or flight time.. and the three F’s are nowhere to be seen. Sad times.