Egypt: Berlin Wall 2.0?

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Protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square

Anti-government protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square

The Arab pro-democracy movement could have as big an impact on international relations as the fall of the Berlin Wall.

When asked about the impact of the French revolution, former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai is widely claimed to have quipped: “It is too soon to tell.”

Of course, since President Mubarak’s sudden resignation was only a few hours ago, it is definitely too soon to say what the impact might be. In fact, since the beginning of the Jasmine revolution in Tunisia, even though I really wanted to write something, I checked myself. After all, events take time to unfold, and it is all too easy to comment on events prematurely. But now, I cannot keep silent. After all, this could be the Berlin wall moment for our generation! And like the fall of the wall, the pro-democracy revolutions in Arab countries could mean a fundamental shift in international relations, which since 9/11 have been couched in terms of “the west vs. Islam”.

I don’t believe that that conflict has ever been about religion; it has always been about different political interests. But wrapping that conflict in terms of religion has made it easy for Muslim autocrats to command loyalty and justify their oppression of their own people. “Democracy is an attempt by the west to impose Christian values on Muslims,” they tell their people, consciously or otherwise. “So obey us.” Words like that have to be backed up with some sort of action, which necessitates a hostile relationship with the western world. That same philosophy had been used by the Soviet Union, until it turned out that it was the communists, not the westerners, who made the people so fed up that they rose to overthrow those regimes.

But the revolutions in the recent months tell us that that is a lie. The ousting of neither Ben Ali in Tunisia nor Mubarak in Egypt have been engineered by the west. In fact, they have caught the western world completely by surprise, even causing alarm. It is no secret that western governments promote democracy with their mouths but support authoritarian governments with their hands, leading to mind-bogglingly stupid actions, such as offering help to suppress the demonstrations (as one French government minister did to Ben Ali).

The revolutions are somewhat good news for all concerned. After all, a lot of fear in the west about Islam is about how, if it is popularised, it is going threaten our rights to life and liberty. But the home-grown pro-democracy movements in Arab states prove (once again, since this has already been proven in the anti-government protests in Iran in 2009) that Islam is not a single behemoth that wants to trample on all things free. Western governments fret that democracy in Muslim states could mean the rise of anti-western Islamists, like the situation in Gaza or southern Lebanon. But those places are an extremely poor example—not every Muslim country is so inhumanely blockaded by a foreign power that is so blatantly favoured by the west, or at least by America. Tunisia and Egypt are relatively western-friendly societies, probably partly because so many western visitors go there every year. The likelihood of those populations turning decisively against the west and all it stands for is not very high.

So the Arab revolutions could pave the way for better relations with the west. Extremists will be forced further into a corner, as the legitimacy of their belief that terrorism against the west is the only way out of oppression is dealt a big blow. The Arab revolutions will signal to Muslims: “The west isn’t the cause of your problem, and neither is religion. The cause of your problem is your own oppressive government.”

But of course, all that is conjecture, and my probably wholly unrealistic hopes. Things can certainly get worse before they get better—or they get worse and stay there. After the fall of the Berlin Wall Eastern Europe endured a lot of pain to emerge from the rubble of communism and it is almost guaranteed that the Arab road to democracy is going to be as, if not even more, bumpy. After all, Gorbachev, Ben Ali and Mubarak all failed to hold on to power mainly because they refused to use force against their own people. But meet someone like Milosevic or perhaps Deng in China, who had no such qualms, and the situation could turn very nasty indeed. The military is now in control of Egypt, but thankfully its recent gestures have been peaceful and positive, whereas Tunisia has entered a more or less peaceful transition period.

So here is hoping for the best. The people have spoken. Let their voices be heard loudly and clearly forever more.

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Déjà vu vu vu vu vu

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Abbas, Netanyahu and Obama

"Let's try - again - to be friends."

The dead horse of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is being flogged again. I will give it one more lash, and then I’ll never bother to write about it again because the same, old things keep coming up.

The first direct talks between the leaders of Israel and (at least half of) the Palestinian people in nearly two years have started today in Washington DC under the auspices of President Obama. Since the last ones broke down in December 2008, just before an Israeli-Hamas war in Gaza, both Israel and America have changed leaders (although Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been PM before). The Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is the sole survivor. There are new faces, but already many predict the same, old outcome, in that the leaders will meet, talk, disagree and part their own ways, each claiming to have offered as much as they could and blaming the other side’s unwillingness to compromise.

The main issue is that old problems remained unsolved. The one mutually agreed-to principle to a lasting peace – that the disputed land will eventually be split between Israel and Palestine – was formally accepted by both sides only in 2007, even though the idea has been around for decades and was probably the most obvious solution. At that kind of pace, when will all the other issues be settled? And the issues are many, with profound disagreements on each of them. Where should the borders be? What to do with Jerusalem? What about the Jewish settlements in the West Bank? Should Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to their pre-1948 homes? When can Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails be released? The list is long. Only recently US-Israeli relations were shaken over the Israeli refusal to freeze settlement-building in the West Bank, much to the chagrin of Obama and Abbas. Netanyahu’s Likud party is currently in coalition with Israel’s right-wing nationalists. If you think getting some Tories to like the idea of Europe as being difficult, think how challenging it must be for Netanyahu to get his coalition partners to agree to any concession.

To compound issues even further, the biggest thorn in the peace negotiations, namely the presence of Hamas as a force to be reckoned with in Gaza, is unlikely to go away. No matter how desperately the west, Israel and Fatah (Abbas’ party) want to ignore the group, which ousted Fatah from Gaza after the Palestinian general elections in 2006, it is here to stay. No official engagement with Hamas has to date been made by the other parties, but as long as Hamas is not somehow involved, no comprehensive peace will ensue. But getting Hamas officially involved without the group acceding to Israel’s demands for recognition would simply be impossible. On the other hand, getting Hamas to recognise what Israel demands without some sort of major conciliatory gesture by Israel is also out of the question. Thus, so far, the talks seem to be heading to another dead end.

Still, the talks have only just begun, and there is everything to play for. If Netanyahu and Abbas can somehow manage to defy all odds and come up with anything resembling a longer-term peace plan, the cost of Hamas holding out will be increased. Gazans may not settle for second-rate status if their neighbours in the West Bank are due to be better off because of a peace deal with Israel. But that is a big “if”, and “all” odds is still quite a lot. If something impressive does turn up, I may be enticed to write another article on the subject.

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