Saturday, 12 February 2011

Egypt: A case study in moral weakness

I've spoken before on this blog about the importance of being able to assert a moral position, contrasted against the prevaling short term pragmatism which pervades political decision making. Its something I've been dwelling on a lot recently as I've watched the seemingly relentless political vascillation which it seems has pervaded many Western democracies over Egypt.

It seems ironic that after we have fought two wars to instill democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan (to extremely limited success) we are so reluctant to embrace the possibility of democracy in this state. It is a clear recognition that realpolitik ultimately trumps the ideological goal of broadening democracy. President Obama once said this in GrantPark after winning the election:
To those who would tear the world down: We will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security: We support you. And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright: Tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.
He would later go on to speak in Egypt, saying this:
That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.
Both of these are clearly stated moral positions, and it is not hard to imagine that the second speech in particular might have had some impact on the Egyptian people's position on democracy. They wanted a Government which reflected their will, so where was Obama and his Government?

Vice President Biden described Mubarak as "an ally" declaring:
Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things. And he’s been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interest in the region, the Middle East peace efforts; the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing relationship with Israel, and I think that it would be – I would not refer to him as a dictator.
Claiming Mubarak wasnt a dictator is basically saying you don't agree with what the definition of what a dictator is. He was a dictator, thats a simple fact. He was also an ally. One does not preclude the other, but denying one because you like the other is a little bit daft.

Obama, a man who let us remember earned himself a Nobel Peace prize about 5 minutes after taking office, called on Mubarak to take "concrete steps that advance the rights of the Egyptian people." Would it have killed him to suggest that just maybe it might be a good idea for Egypt to have a real election? Apparently so.

Moral weakness is a peril which few leaders recognise. Most people believe that certain things are right, and others wrong. Usually they make this decision swiftly and once decision is made it is hard to alter their perception. In Egypt I think most people felt that the protesters were broadly in the right. There was some early fear that the protests were some sort of jihadi uprising, but that quickly settled down when it became clear the protests were largely peaceful.

Cameron and Obama struggled to assert a clear position on Egypt because they were trying too hard to see what the benefit of supporting either side was, without recognising that it would have been more positive to embrace the movement, garnering both domestic support, but more importantly have showed that he wanted something positive for the people of Egypt and the region more broadly.

I realise that my position on issues like this is idealised, entirely too much so, but I honestly believe that finding true moral position on some issues would genuinely be a fine thing for our leaders.
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