Gambling with Democracy

It is difficult to fathom out what lay behind the US Administration’s decision to disassociate itself from President Mubarak and his government with such indecent haste and throw in its lot with those demonstrating in Tahrir Square.

The support for the protesters is supposedly in the name of democracy and freedom, but Mubarak has been in power for thirty years! Why the sudden concern for the citizens of the world’s largest Arab nation, a third of who are illiterate and have little idea of what democracy actually means?

If the purpose was to identify with the Egyptian people and to be on the winning side, then it is hard to believe that this belated move will succeed. The United States has supported President Mubarak for far too long to be able to disassociate itself from his dictatorship and switch horses at the eleventh hour.

White House spokesman, Tommy Vietor, is reported as having stated that what really matters is “the voices of the Egyptian people.” Such noble sentiments, coming from a country that has supported Mubarak’s dictatorship to the tune of $18b over the past decade, would seem to suggest a major shift in American policy in the region.

Consequently, the West’s traditional allies in the Middle East, such as Israel and Jordan, have been left wondering whether they too will be abandoned when push comes to shove. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have already expressed concern that the position that the US has now adopted will only serve to destabilize the region. And they should know.

After the failure to impose democracy in Iraq, one would have hoped that the West had learned its lesson. Fawaz George, a Lebanese professor and director of the London School of Economics Middle East Centre, wrote it The Guardian last year: “Although Iraq’s second parliamentary elections since the US-led invasion represent a milestone, they will neither resolve the country’s existential crisis nor bring it closer to genuine democracy. Results released by the inept Independent High Electoral Commission show little change in political attitudes and loyalties. On the whole, Iraqis did not vote according to party or ideology. Sect, ethnicity, and tribe trumpeted other loyalties.”

A similar picture, of course, emerges from Lebanon, where the Hezbollah-backed Najib Mikati was designated prime minister only last week. Sunnis protested in a “day of rage” at what they called Hezbollah’s “soft coup”.

Anyone assessing what has happened on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip since the internationally supervised elections that took place there in 2006 will understand that the Arab world is a tinderbox where well-meaning, naïve attempts to impose Western styled democracy do not necessarily achieve the desired results.

Earlier this week, at the height of the disturbances in Egypt, twenty-two members of a Hezbollah cell escaped from their prison cells together with members of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. They are now reported to be back in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. The West would do well to take note of the presence of such people in Egypt, who have little interest in democracy and are aided and abetted by Iran, whose political and spiritual leaders are delighted at what is currently taking place in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria.

An Egypt in which the Muslim Brotherhood plays a significant role will scrap its treaty with Israel and strengthen its ties with Hamas and the Gaza Strip. As such, what is evolving in Egypt could have serious implications for the stability of the region.

Those who have mistakenly argued that the Israel/Palestinian conflict is the major cause of instability in the Middle East would do well to look elsewhere.

It is reported that the ageing actor, Omar Sharif, has come out in support of the protestors. As one of the world’s best known contract bridge players and a frequent visitor to the casinos of the South of France, he knows only too well that gambling is a risky business. However, unlike Sharif, we in the Middle East can’t afford to take chances and gamble with our lives.

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