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Johann Hari

Johann Hari

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We All Helped Suppress the Egyptians -- With Our Taxes. So How Do We Change?

Posted: 02/ 3/11 10:41 PM ET

The old slogan from the 1960s has come true: the revolution has been televised. The world is watching the Bastille fall on 24/7 rolling news and Tweeting the death-spasms of Mubarak-Antoinette. This elderly thug is trying to beat and tear-gas and buy himself enough time to smuggle his family's estimated $25bn in loot out of the country, and to install a successor friendly to his interests. The Egyptian people -- half of whom live on less than $2 a day -- seem determined to prevent the pillage and not to wait until September to drive out a dictator dripping in blood and bad hair dye.

The great Czech dissident Vaclav Havel outlined the "as if principle." He said people trapped under a dictatorship need to act "as if they are free." They need to act as if the dictator has no power over them. They need to act as if they have their human rights. Havel rode that principle to the death of Soviet tyranny and to the Presidential Palace of a free society.

The Egyptians are trying the same -- and however many of them Mubarak murders on his way out the door, the direction in which fear flows has been successfully reversed. The tyrant has become terrified of "his" people -- and dictators everywhere are watching the live-feed from Liberation Square pale-faced and panicked.

Of course, there is a danger that what follows will be worse. My family lived for a time under the torturing tyranny of the Shah of Iran, and cheered the revolution in 1979 -- yet he was replaced by the even more vicious Ayatollahs. But this is not the only model, nor the most likely. The events in Egypt look more like the Indonesian revolution, where in 1998 a popular uprising toppled a US-backed, US-armed tyrant after 32 years of oppression -- and went on to build the largest and most plural democracy in the Muslim world.

But the discussion here in the West should focus on the factor we are responsible for and we can influence -- the role our governments have played in suppressing the Egyptian people. Your taxes have been used to arm, fund and fuel this dictatorship. You have unwittingly helped to keep these people down. The tear gas canisters fired at pro-democracy protesters have 'Made in America' stamped on them, with British machine guns and grenade launchers held in the background.

Very few Westerners would praise a murderer and sell him weapons. Very few Westerners would beat up a poor person in order to get cheaper petrol. But our governments do this abroad all the time. Of the three worst human rights abusers in the Middle East -- Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Iran -- two are our governments' closest friends, showered with money, arms and praise. Why?

Western foreign policy does not follow the everyday moral principles of American and European people, because it is not formulated by us. This might sound like an odd thing to say about a country that prides itself on being a democracy, but it is true. The British former Labour MP Lorna Fitzsimons spoke at a conference for Israel's leaders last year and assured they didn't have to worry about the British people's growing opposition to their policies because "public opinion does not influence foreign policy in Britain. Foreign policy is an elite issue." This is repellent but right -- and true of the U.S., too. It is formulated instead in the interests of elite forces -- big business and their demand for access to resources, and influential sectional interest groups.

You can see this most clearly if you go through the three reasons our governments give, sometimes publicly, sometimes privately, for their behavior in the Middle East.

Explanation one: oil. Some sixty percent of the world's remaining petrol is in the Middle East. We are all addicted to it: without it we would slam into civilizational cold turkey. So our governments support strongmen and murderers who will keep the oil-taps gushing without interruption. Egypt doesn't have oil, but it has crucial oil pipelines and supply routes, and it is part of a chain of regional dictators we don't want broken unless they all fall taking the petrol pump with it. Addicts don't stand up to their dealers: they fawn before them.

There is an obvious medium-term solution: break our addiction. The technology exists -- through wind, wave and especially solar power -- to fuel our societies as they are today without oil. It would free us from our support for dictators and horrific wars of plunder like Iraq. It's our society's route to rehab - but it is being blocked by the hugely influential oil companies, who would lose a fortune. Like everybody who needs to go to rehab, the first step is to come out of denial about why we are still hooked.

Explanation two: Israel and the "peace process." Over the past week, we have persistently been told -- not least by Tony Blair -- that Mubarak was a key plank in supporting "peace in the Middle East." Precisely the opposite is the truth. Mubarak has been at the forefront of waging war on the Palestinian civilian population and blocking the route to peace. There are 1.5 million people imprisoned on the Gaza Strip, surrounded on all sides, and denied access to necessities like pasta and centrifuges for their blood transfusion service. They are being punished for voting "the wrong way" in a democratic election. Israeli officials refer to it with a snigger as "putting the Palestinians on a diet". Challenged about the legality of this, Tzipi Livni, as Israeli foreign minister, bragged: "I am against law -- international law in particular. Law in general."

It's well known that Israel illegally blockades Gaza to one side -- but remember: Mubarak blockades it to the other. I've stood in the Gaza Strip and watched Egyptian soldiers refusing to let sick and dying people out for treatment they can't get in Gaza's collapsing hospitals. In return for $1.5bn a year from the U.S. and praise from all Western governments, Mubarak has constructed a wall and jailed the people of Gaza -- a policy that is wildly unpopular with the Egyptian people. Far from contributing to peace, this is marinating the Gazan people -- a majority of whom are children -- in understandable hatred and dreams of vengeance.

This is, of course, bad even for Israel herself -- but we are so servile to the demands of the country's self-harming government, and to its loudest and angriest lobbyists here, that our governments obey. As long as this continues, they will in practice oppose democracy in the Arab world.

Explanation three: Strongmen suppress jihadism. Our governments claim that without dictators there to suppress, torture and disappear Islamic fundamentalists, they will be unleashed and come after us. Indeed, they often outsourced torture to the Egyptian regime, sending suspects there to do things that would be illegal at home. Rober Baer, who was a senior figure in black ops at the CIA, said: "If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear -- never to see them again -- you send them to Egypt."

Western governments claim all this makes us safer. In fact, the opposite is the truth. In his acclaimed history of al Qaeda, The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright explains: "America's tragedy on September 11th was born in the prisons of Egypt." Modern jihadism was invented by Sayeed Qutb as he was electrocuted and lashed in Egyptian jails -- and grew under successive tyrannies. Mohammed Atta, the lead 9/11 hijacker, was Egyptian, and named the fact that the US backed his country's tyrant as one of the main reasons for the massacre.

When we fund and facilitate the violent suppression and torture of people, they hate us, and want to fight back. As David Gardner, veteran Middle East correspondent for that communist rag the Financial Times: "If we continue to connive in the survival of tyranny, we abet the onward march of the jihadis for whom Western policy is their most consistently reliable ally." Michael Scheuer, who was in charge of tracking Osama Bin Laden for the CIA, agrees, writing: "The US remains Bin Laden's only indispensible ally."

Backing tyrants -- or hellish wars of plunder, as in Iraq -- creates far more jihadis than it suffocates. This is especially the case in Egypt, where Mubarak deliberately ensured the opposition would be Islamist to keep the US aid dollars flowing. While he utterly crushed the liberals and democrats, he kept space open for the Muslim Brotherhood because, as Imad Gad, a leading political analyst in Cairo puts it, "Mubarak wanted the [Brotherhood] to appear as the only alternative."

None of these three factors that drove our governments to back Mubarak's dictatorship in Egypt and elsewhere for so long have changed. So we should strongly suspect that -- during the transition that now has to come -- they will talk sweet words about democracy in public, and try to secure a more PR-friendly Mubarak in private.

In Cairo, there is an area called the City of the Dead. It is a large ancient graveyard filled with tombs. One million families with nowhere else to go have had to break them open and live in the graves. It's a symbol of the living death the dictators we arm and fund have inflicted on the Middle East. While the people live in coffins, Mubarak's family buy palaces here in London: I just went to see the five-storey Georgian mansion they own round the corner from Harrods here in London.

It doesn't have to be like this. We could make our governments as moral as we, the people of the US and Europe, are in our everyday lives. We could stop them trampling on the weak and fattening thugs. But to achieve it, we have to democratize our own societies and claim control of our own foreign policy. We would have to monitor and argue and campaign over it, and let our governments know there is a serious price for behaving viciously abroad. The Egyptian people have shown this week they will risk everything to stop being abused. What will we risk to stop our governments being abusers?


Johann Hari is a writer for the Independent. To read more of his articles, click here or here. You can email him at j.hari [at] independent.co.uk

 

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