Rude awakening for powers set on keeping Arab despots in place - TARIQ ALI - IRISH TIMES 050211

Rude awakening for powers set on keeping Arab despots in place

TARIQ ALI

OPINION: The Egyptian people want foreign policy that is decided in Cairo, not Tel Aviv or Washington

‘FREEDOM LIES behind a door closed shut,” the great Egyptian poet Ahmed Shawqi wrote in the last century. “It can only be knocked down with a bleeding fist.” More than that is bleeding in the Arab world at the moment.

The uprisings we are witnessing in Egypt have been a rude awakening for all those who imagined that the despots of the Arab world could be kept in place provided they continued to serve the needs of the West and their harsh methods weren’t aired on CNN and BBC World. But while western establishments lull themselves to sleep with fairytales, ordinary citizens, who are defeated and demoralised, mull their revenge.

The French government seriously considered sending its paratroopers to save former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pleading with officials in Washington to delay Mubarak’s departure so Israel has time to prepare for the likely outcome. Former British prime minister Tony Blair is even describing the Egyptian dictator as a “force for good”.

The almost 200 pro-democracy citizens who have been killed don’t bother him too much. That’s small beer compared with the tens of thousands dead in Iraq. And a desperate PLO is backing Mubarak and repressing solidarity demonstrations in Ramallah on the West Bank.

In Yemen, another strongman in power for 30 years is beginning to totter. President Ali Abdullah Saleh is a hated figure, again backed by the West.

If Tunisia was a tremor, the Egyptian uprising has become an earthquake. The generals in Cairo are still refusing to disperse the crowds with tanks and bullets. A full-scale Tiananmen Square option, which Mubarak and his friends would have appreciated, becomes difficult in these conditions.

So what will they do? As the crisis moves a step further, vice-president Omar Suleiman, not trusted by many people as the former director of intelligence, is hoping to divide the opposition, clear the streets and negotiate a deal, offering Amr Moussa, the toothless head of the Arab League, the interim presidency. They want someone who will retain the remnants of the old institutions and, in particular, the apparatuses of the secret state that have been so useful in helping the West’s policy of renditions in the war on terror, which has so far only succeeded in engendering more terror.

The people are demanding a total overhaul. They want, as in Tunisia, a new constitution that guarantees political and social rights. They want an independent foreign policy that is decided in Cairo, not Tel Aviv or Washington. They want to lift the blockade of Gaza so that its people can live as normally as possible.

This week, the Egyptian regime, shaken by the mass mobilisations, threatened counter-revolution. Pro-Mubarak forces – a combination of the security cops out of uniform and gangsters released from prison – attacked protesters, creating mayhem in Tahrir Square. The military, which pledged to defend public safety, failed to do so.

A post-Mubarak Egypt is difficult to predict with exactitude. There is a decent, amiable technocrat, Mohamed ElBaradei, better known abroad than at home, as a possible Plan B for the White House.

Lurking behind ElBaradei is the Muslim Brotherhood. It, too, is divided, with a dominant wing of young, modernist Muslims who want to mimic Turkey. If the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s favourite Islamists in Istanbul can do business with Washington, why not their Egyptian equivalents?

Internally, what is required is to rebuild the abandoned social safety net, providing elementary health, education and housing for the poor.

Externally, Egypt’s relationship with the US and Israel will have to be modified, regardless of who succeeds Mubarak. A peace treaty that benefits Israel alone was never accepted by the Egyptian people. Only then will Egypt be able to stop the bleeding. – (© 2011 Bloomberg News)

Tariq Ali is a London-based writer, film-maker and left-wing political activist