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Whose national interests are paramount?

As events in the Middle East unfold, one interesting aspect of the people-power discussion is the reticence of western pro-democracy governments in the face of real democracy on the streets of Arab cities. European politicians, who have kowtowed before the likes of Hosni Mubarak for years, now find themselves having to ditch the dictator without fully denouncing him for what he is, while pretending that the interests of the people of Egypt have been uppermost in their minds all along. Why, we have the right to ask, does it take blood on the streets before western politicians will at least make a pretence of doing something positive for oppressed people in Arab countries? Why does the blood of human beings splattered on the floors and walls of torture chambers overseen by the Hosni Mubaraks of this world not elicit more than politically expedient disinterest?


The answer, of course, lies in what the New York Times has called "a quandary" facing Washington, "trying to balance national security concerns and its moral responsibility to stand with those who have the courage to oppose authoritarian rulers." The real quandary, of course, is how you support the opponents of authoritarian regimes which your own country has supported for decades. Successive US presidents, British prime ministers and their counterparts in countries across Europe have themselves never had "the courage to oppose authoritarian rulers" in the Middle East precisely because of those "national security concerns" and the power of a well-organised Israel lobby. The New York Times doesn't expand on whose concerns they might be, but I don't hesitate to suggest that they are not entirely America's. US "security concerns" in the Middle East focus on one country – Israel – and control over the government of Egypt is essential to Israel's interests in maintaining its military and political hegemony in the region.

Until and unless oppressed people living under authoritarian regimes rise up and seek to overthrow the western-backed dictators, such "Arab despots", as the NYT's Roger Cohen calls them, are part and parcel of the club – alongside Obama, Cameron, Merkel, et al which decides the rules and oversees the "Game of Nations". That was the title of a book written by the late Miles Copeland, one-time CIA "cover" in Cairo; the full title, The Game of Nations: The Amorality of Power Politics tells you all you need to know. What the members of this club fear more than anything is a power bloc which refuses to accept the rules dictated by neo-colonial interests.
The Soviet Union was feared because it wouldn't play the game, and China is being held at arm's length because the currently-dominant west doesn't know how to cope with it. Iran is being pursued under the guise of nuclear concerns while Israel's known nuclear arsenal provokes no reaction at all, not even a mild rebuke. Israel, you see, cannot be allowed to lose its military edge in the region, nor its political fig-leaf provided by the USA and Europe and their pet dictatorships like Mubarak's Egypt; throw in the Middle East's oil reserves, and there you have it: Western national interests.

The other non-conformists are, of course, the "Islamists". Post-communist Russia continues to suppress Islam and Muslims in the ex-Soviet states on its borders. In other such states, dictators with Muslim names are courted by Western governments and companies for lucrative contracts while their murderous suppression of their largely Muslim citizens passes without comment. Events in the Middle East and North Africa region over a number of years have demonstrated that Western democratic governments fear democracy itself if the people's electoral choice is an Islamic movement. Algeria's experiment with democracy in the early nineties ended when the Islamic Salvation Front was set to win the election; the army cancelled the vote with the tacit support of the west. Fast-forward to 2006 and the Islamist Hamas movement did in fact win free and fair elections in the occupied Palestinian territories only to be isolated by a boycott led by Israel, the US and the EU. Despite the lack of any formal involvement in the Egyptian demonstrations by the country's largest, though banned, opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, its members are being cast as the bogeymen waiting in reserve.

Ask no more why western leaders are holding back from unqualified support for the people on the streets of Cairo; the Observer newspaper put it this way: "Is there a danger of an Islamist takeover?" Such a takeover would, suggests the anonymous journalist, permit "extremism and violence" to "flourish". Echoing the New York Times, the Observer said that "the mild comments from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on Friday" reflect the fact that "western politicians need to achieve the right balance between backing the people's legitimate demands and protecting their own interests. It is not good for western powers to lend their support to autocratic regimes. But it is in no one's interest to have a political vacuum in countries where extremism and violence can flourish and where much of the world's oil reserves are managed."

The despots of the Middle East have, believes Roger Cohen, "depended on a readiness to terrorize and torture" their own people, funded and supported by our governments he might have added. The "extremism and violence" of the Arab world's security forces – in Palestine, they are supported financially by "foreign aid" from Britain as part of our contribution towards "state building" – is preferable to democratically arrived at "Islamism", according to that far from neutral assessment by the Observer journalist and western governments.

In Palestine, the people don't have "legitimate demands", they have legal rights, but "western governments [are] protecting their own interests" by supporting the Israeli regime which suppresses the people of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip with a brutal military occupation in collaboration with the western-backed Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. What is playing out in Egypt is just part of the whole game played by nation states in which human lives are the pawns to be sacrificed to protect national interests and allow political nonentities in places like Cairo and Ramallah to amass personal fortunes as the favoured few corrupt lackeys of western paymasters.

America's responsibility for the failure of Arab states "has been significant" according to Roger Cohen: "America has preferred the stable despot to the Islamist risk of democracy." Saddam Hussain was one such despot who was the west's man until he outlived his usefulness and we all know where that led. Cohen says that this western policy has been followed even though "the only likely remedy to the seductive illusion of political Islamism is the responsibility of government". Seductive illusion or not, the reality is that, to the shame of western democracies, a democratically-elected movement like Hamas was not given the opportunity to govern under anything remotely like normal circumstances, so we do not know if they can perform or not. People who cry wolf about Islamists base it on conjecture or the actions of a relatively few extremists; is democracy condemned because of the actions of the USA? Not only is it still the only state ever to use nuclear weapons against fellow human beings, but it's also guilty of using chemical weapons which killed and maimed millions in south-east Asia, and pursuing a policy in Iraq which led to the deaths of more than half-a-million children, a price which was "worth it", according to the then Secretary of State Madeline Albright. Nevertheless, western journalists and politicians, none of them particularly neutral in this respect, continue with their mantra of "Islamists bad, secular despots not so bad" and few question its veracity.

As the west prevaricates, Cohen reminds us that "you can't be a little bit democratic any more than you can be a little bit pregnant". Nor, he adds, can you deal with the Middle East with "facile terrorist designations" for Islamist groups as they are clearly "self-defeating and inadequate". He cites Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland as an example of having to move beyond such designations if peace is truly the objective. Failure to act, he concludes, adds up to "Western double-standards in the supposed interest of Arab stability". Peace and justice in the Middle East is, of course, an illusion; it has never been Israel's aim nor has it been that of the countries which support the Zionist state. Control over the masses and the oil they are sitting on is the objective; if peace and justice is achieved in the process, fair enough; if not, it's no big deal, as long as we have the oil and Israel can be the cuckoo in the nest turfing out indigenous upstarts who think they have rights in and over their own land.

Which brings me back to my main question: whose national security concerns or national interests are paramount in the Middle East? If the governments of the west really expect us to believe that they care an iota about the people on the streets of Cairo, they need to put aside the double-standards and hypocrisy that have guided their foreign policy in the region for more than half-a-century and put the interests of the people first and foremost in their dealings with Hosni Mubarak, the Palestinian Authority and all of the other puppet regimes across the Middle East, including the government of Israel. Anything less and we will have more "ossified, repressive, nepotistic [and] corrupt systems" propping up western and Israeli interests. In the long run, that serves nobody's interests, never mind "ours".

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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