Time to end the Arab exception

Published: January 30 2011 19:58 | Last updated: January 30 2011 19:58

The unfolding drama in the battle-disfigured streets and opaque repositories of power in Cairo has an act or two to go before reaching catharsis. But one thing is clear. The army will try to ensure Hosni Mubarak is not forced out by the revolt and will instead ease him off stage.
Egypt’s US and European allies should do everything they can to ensure his retirement comes soon and finally place themselves on the right side of history in the Arab world, of which Egypt is now the throbbing heart.
Mr Mubarak has had to fall back on the army; and he has lost control of the presidential succession. For the first time in his 30 years in power he has been forced to appoint a vice-president – Omar Suleiman, chief of the tentacular Mukhabarat intelligence services – and thereby relinquish any hope he had to bequeath the presidency to his banker son, Gamal.
The military establishment has too many interests vested in the regime to allow Mr Mubarak to be bundled off to Saudi Arabia, like his fellow Tunisian dictator, Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali. But the army will surely have told the president he cannot attempt to stay on in what would be another sham election due this September. The uprising and chaos of the past week have made clear what that would mean.
Mr Mubarak seemed blithely unaware of this when, as Cairo burned, he addressed the nation on Friday night. In other circumstances it might have seemed an assured, even avuncular performance. At this moment in Egypt’s destiny, it was a dictionary definition of tin-eared denial.
Appointing a former air force commander – like Mr Mubarak himself – as his new prime minister, and then naming his intelligence chief as his likely successor, is no cure for civic insurrection. The ageing pharaoh might as well try to blot out the sun with his finger. Egypt’s young rebels, who have raised the banner of freedom and insisted on his departure, are not risking their lives in order to see one set of generals replaced by another.
Do the US and the west have a role in this drama, other than as a shambolic chorus? Yes.
The Mubarak regime is at the centre of a network of regional strongmen the west has backed and bankrolled to secure stability in a neuralgic region, guaranteed oil supplies and the safety of Israel. As waves of democracy have burst over almost every other tyrant-plagued region in the past 30 years, the US and Europe have connived in an Arab exception – and Egypt is its exemplar.
The west has struck a Faustian bargain with Arab rulers, who have blackmailed them into believing that, but for them, the mullahs would be in charge. There is unquestionably a risk. Arab despots have destroyed political and institutional life, leaving their opponents little option but the mosque and the madrassa.
But what shallow realists in the west fail to grasp is that the risk grows greater the longer these corrupt regimes, incapable of meeting the aspirations of their young populations, remain in power. Instability is certain; it is the future that is up for grabs. For now, it is young, mostly secular democrats who have taken a courageous initiative in the streets. They deserve support.
Instead of propping up tyrants for short-term and often illusory gains, western policy needs to find ways of stimulating the forces in Arab society that might eventually replace them. After the 9/11 attack on America, a misguided “they-hate-us-for-our-freedoms” industry emerged. No. What Arabs and Muslims hate is western support for those who deny them their freedoms.
It is an important signal that Washington intends to review the annual $1.3bn stipend it has paid to Egypt’s army since 1979. The west needs to put its money where its mouth is, with a blatant bias towards democracy and its brave defenders, by supporting competitive politics and open societies, education and the building of institutions, law-based regimes and the empowerment of women – everything the Arabs, against the odds, still find attractive about western society.
It is for the Egyptians (and the Arabs) to claw their way out of the pit of autocracy. The least they can expect from the west is to stop stamping on their fingers.

  Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011.  All Rights Reserved

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