Egypt: A Great Test for the West

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Nabi Sonboli

Active ImageDuring and after the 1979 Iranian revolution, the West verbally supported democracy, human rights, and peace. However, in action they chose dictatorship and supported first the Shah to prevent the revolution, and then Saddam Hussein of Iraq to weaken revolutionary Iran. Then the US followed the wrong containment strategy toward Iran and imposed huge financial and human costs both on Iran and the West for three decades. Although the major European powers had a different opinion, they failed in designing a different strategy and finally joined the US in its policies. Once again the West is facing a great test—this time in Egypt. This test will manifest whether the West really believes in democracy and peace, or not. Early reactions demonstrate that some political leaders in the EU and the US have not learned from the past and are repeating the same mistakes.

The frustrations in the greater Middle East are not new. It is for more than two centuries that the Middle East has suffered from severe problems. Occupation, colonialism, backwardness, foreign intervention, corruption, inefficient governments, lack of democracy, extremism, lack of hardworking officials; these have all been common problems all around the region from North Africa to Central Asia. To overcome these problems we have witnessed many social and political movements. Reform-oriented liberal monarchists; liberal Nationalists, Socialists, and Islamists are among the most well-known ones. Global powers’ intervention, regional competition and local problems (especially widespread illiteracy and poverty) have contributed to the failure of almost all past socio-political movements in the region in solving these problems.

The first group of reformists in the Middle East were mostly liberal and Westerners. The Constitutional revolution in Iran failed because Great Britain supported Reza Shah’s military coup and subsequent dictatorship. Late Prime Minister Mosadeq was removed from power by a UK-US military coup in 1953. The Soviet Union also gave no real help to the leftists and socialist in Iraq, Syria and Egypt. Over the years, global powers have been looking for puppet states, not democratic ones. These kinds of behaviors have weakened the credibility of the West and its values among political groups of any persuasion. However, I do not believe that the foreign factor has been the main problem. Middle Eastern problems have had internal, regional and international factors, and global powers have benefited from internal and regional ones to push forward their policies and interests.

Turkey and Iran are the two relatively successful models in the region, and their successes are the achievement of their people. In both cases, the West did not play a positive role, rather, by launching war and sanctions against Iran and military coups in Turkey, the West has been an obstacle to democracy and development. None of the authoritarian corrupted and inefficient governments in the region could stay in power for a long time without foreign support.  The Iraqi war against Iran supported by the West, US economic sanctions, military threats and interventions around Iran has securitized the Iranian regional environment, and played a big role in preventing further development in Iran and its surroundings. However, the situation in Iran is not comparable to Egypt, and those who are familiar with the region and have visited the two countries, believe that in comparison to Iran, Egypt is 20 years behind, while the West has regarded Cairo as an ally and Tehran as an enemy. [i]

What we witness now in the Greater Middle East, is the consequence of accumulated frustrations and unresolved crises that have resulted from the long- term failure of inefficient and corrupted monarchies and “renarchies”[ii] in solving economic, social, and political problems. Watching demonstrations in Middle Eastern countries, we see everyone from the old to the young, from the rich to the poor, from highly educated to the illiterate. They include all political groups with different opinions. This shows how widespread and deep are the frustrations.[iii]

Dictatorship leads society to a deadlock and prevents the social and political dynamism of society from working efficiently. In such a situation while everything seems to be calm, the frustrations are intensified and accumulated quietly. That’s why the revolutionary changes seem to be unpredictable. The reason is that frustration and complaints are accumulated in the minds and hearts of the people, and they are invisible to the outside observer. The people first speak loudly in their minds, then in private places, and if no one hears them, they join together in the streets. At this point controlling them is not a simple matter, for the people feel that they do not have anything to lose. Long- term authoritarian governments supported by the West in the Middle East and North Africa have weakened social and political dynamism, which has consequently led to accumulated crises and frustrations. Stability needs social, political and economic bases that have already been destroyed. 

Egypt today is a great test and opportunity for the EU and the US to show their sincerity in supporting democracy, human rights, and dignity not only to Egyptian people, but to the entire Muslim world. It is ridiculous to ask a three decades old corrupted dictatorship to reform the political system and bring democracy to its nation. Turning to the military and making superficial changes in the administration is interpreted as a sign of receiving a green light from the US and a way to mislead the people. Supporting the failed regime in Egypt will deteriorate the already severely negative image of the West in the region.

Credibility is the main asset for a government to implement appropriate policies. Demanding that Mobarak reform the political system is like appointing the head of the Mafia as the chief of police and asking him to fight illegal activities. If Mobarak had wanted and could bring reform, he would have done so long time ago. The Mobarak regime has already lost its credibility and the West needs to truly understand this point.

Egypt has not faced any military threats for three decades, and US military support has only been used to keep the dictatorship in power. The US will benefit much more if they ask Mobarak to leave the country and let the people decide their future. Sooner or latter, the people will succeed in bringing about change. It is in the US and EU interest to play a positive role; not a negative one as they did during and after the Iranian revolution.

If international community continues to support current dictators and does not welcome change, the consequent intensified frustration will lead to an expansion of extremism and terrorism that no one will benefit from. To prevent that from happening, the international community should use the opportunity to support the people to bring their real representatives into power. Furthermore, it is an opportunity for the West to change its perception among the people of the Middle East and the world.

Preaching democracy, human dignity, human rights, international law and peace, while supporting dictatorship, illegal sanctions, and military interventions is a humiliation of the people, and neglecting their rights is no longer acceptable for the people of the Middle East. The West has two options: support change in Egypt and benefit from a democratic Middle East; or support inefficient, illegitimate, corrupted dictatorships and authoritarian governments and lose credibility, which will impose further costs on itself and the region. 

The people in the Middle East and North Africa want exactly what all other people around the world are looking for: a better life. The question is, who has prevented them from having a better life and why? And is it the right decision to ask those who have been the main problem for a long time to find and implement the right solutions? A democratic Egypt will benefit the world, but it cannot by realized by the existing government. The West knows very well that a real democracy and free and fair elections will not be realized by a truly corrupted dictatorship. The sooner the West stands with the people, supports free and fair election and accepts the results, the better.

[i] . Some researchers in the West tend to blame Iran for the problems between Iran and the West; however, if we review the historical relations between the two sides since the Russian occupation of the northern part of Iran in the 19th century and the unfulfilled promises of the UK and France, then the support for military coups and the Shahs’ dictatorships in the 20th century, then the Saddam Hussein war and the imposing of cconomic sanctions, we realize that Iranian reactions and mistrust toward the West has been perfectly natural.  

[ii] . By “renarchy”, a mixture of republic and monarchy, I mean autocratic republics that always get 90 percent of the vote, and leave power in favor of their sons or relatives. 

[iii] . Some people compare the events in Egypt with the 2009 demonstrations in Tehran. They may seem similar in terms of using the internet and cell phones for coordination; however the demonstrators in Tehran mainly included the dissatisfied middle class asking for more freedom, while the demonstrators in Cairo include all social classes, and the unrest began with the lower classes that are frustrated by poverty and unemployment and are demanding a better life. 

Nabi Sonboli is a scholar at the Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS), which was founded in 1983 in Tehran as one of the first think-tanks in Iran after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. He is currently representing IPIS in Berlin working on scientific cooperation.

Source: Iranian Diplomacy

طراحی و توسعه آگاه‌سیستم