Editor's Notes


True North Perspective
Vol. 6, No. 4 (262)
Friday, February 4, 2010
It's time to listen to the people, not the leaders
Managing Editor, True North Perspective
Egyptians demand liberty. Photograph: Hannibal Hanschke/EPA.  

It's become a familiar, oft-repeated story since 1989, when the mere voices of citizens in the streets shattered the rotted-out hulk of the old Soviet empire, shocking casual observers and "experts" alike with the sudden demise of the U.S.S.R.

Again and again since then, the scenes have been repeated. Massive protests, mostly peaceful, with a simple demand. That the existing government, corrupt and repressive and vicious, should go. Go now.

The government says no. It threatens reprisals, then offers concessions. The people stand firm, unwilling to bargain now they sense they have the upper hand.

Each time, the rest of the world watches, wondering whether this iteration will see the joyful hope of another Velvet Revolution or the horror of another Tiananmen Square.

And each time, the Western world, citizens and governments alike, are united in solidarity with those men and women who dare to face down the secret police and soldiers of the brutal, dictatorial regime.

At least, that's the story we tell ourselves. Like all good myths, that story holds some truth; but like all myths, good and bad, there is more to it than the feel-good fairy tale.

The truth is, our leaders — and many of us, who should know better if only because we have been lied to so many times before — don't have much interest in democracy or liberty, except when it is convenient for them, and for the corporations at whose behest they labour. We offer our voices and, sometimes, material aid, to those struggling for democracy only when the governments against which they fight are "our" enemies. When they are "our" friends, we offer instead fighter planes and tear gas grenades, tanks and training in the fine arts of torture.

And so it is that the official Western responses to the ongoing revolution in Egypt, and elsewhere in the Arab world, has been so horribly revealing. Seldom has the blatant contempt in which our "leaders" hold freedom and democracy been so nakedly on display as it has been in recent weeks as the Arab world has risen in revolt against the murdering torturers under whose yokes they have been lashed for so long.

Rather than offering support for those marching for freedom in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria, our leaders have been suggesting "caution" and urging "restraint" on the parts of both governments and protesters, as if the former, with their armies of secret police and hidden torture chambers are the moral equals of unarmed citizens demanding the right to have a say in their own governance.

There is no shame for the fact that "our side" has for 30 years (and more) offered nothing but more weapons — more tanks, more planes, more tear gas — to one of "our" dictators, Hosni Mubarak, a man whom the unindicted war criminal, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, recently called "immensely courageous and a force for good."

Blair, who has somehow managed to parlay a history of starting illegal wars based on lies into a gig as a peace envoy between Israel and the Palestinians, let the cat out of what's left of the Western bag in an interview with the BBC earlier this week. (Click here for the video.)

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who led his country in an illegal invasion of Iraq, said it best — or rather, "best" — in an interview with the BBC a few days ago. Beneath his unctuous tones and false concerns, beneath the facile lies and half-truths, there can be no doubt that Blair's only concern is with his perception of the West's own self-interest — and 70 million Egyptians can rot in a dictator's dungeon 'till the end of time so far as this very publicly "Christian" former Prime Minister is concerned.

Without any apparent sense of irony, Blair (emphasis courtesy of the writer China Mieville) said, that, "I don't think that Western governments should be the slightest bit embarrassed about saying we've worked very closely with president Mubarak" and then made the ludicrous claim that, "we've always been urging change" on the 30 year dictatorship that is the second-largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the world, after Israel.

But Blair's rhetorical revelation came as he explained why "letting" the Egyptian people choose their own government is a risky thing.

You look at Lebannon today and you realize you've got to be careful as to how this change is produced. So, I think that the sensible way of Western governments responding to this is to respond to the desires and aspirations of the Egyptian people, but then, to partner the government concerned, in trying to bring about that process of change in a stable way.

How Lebannon, a small nation that has seen two civil wars and multiple invasions over the past 40 or so years, is relevant to the current situation in Egypt, a large country that has been at peace since 1979 (and free from war since 1973) remains unanswered, but that is the sort of intellectual slight-of-hand used to disguise what's really going on — which is that the powers-that-be don't want the people in the Middle East to be free to choose their own fates.

All this talk of stability and about managing "change in a stable way" is code for ensuring that "our" oil keeps flowing, that "our" clients keep buying the weapons of war that help keep the military-industrial complex running.

And so we get people of good will wondering whether the Egyptian people are "ready" for democracy, and worries that, say, the dreaded Muslim Brotherhood might take power from the chaos of revolution.

And you know what? It might. I don't pretend to be an expert on Egypt in particular, or on the Muslim world in general, but I know this much. What happens in Egypt is none of our business.

No matter how much we as citizens might like to believe that Western "interventions" in the affairs of other nations are committed with good intentions (they almost never are, but let's pretend for just a moment), the results almost never work out.

For thirty years, says Tony Blair, the West has been "urging change" on Hosni Mubarak. Clearly, if Blair is telling the truth, that hasn't worked.

If there is a lesson for those of us in the West to learn from the streets of Cairo, it is the same lesson we ought to have learned last summer on the streets of Toronto — if ever they did, our "leaders" no longer care for democracy or dissent. They are terrified of change and their instincts run to jackboots, not to discussion; repression not liberation.

They lie to us and, I suspect, they lie to themselves. But either way, we must begin to once more hold them to the ideals on which we have built our societies. The lesson we can learn from the Egyptians is that we, too, will have to fight if we want freedom. Our leaders will not and can not "give" it to us any more than they can or will give it to the Egyptians.

Even a disastrous revolution in Egypt will not threaten the West (no, not even Israel!). And even a disastrous revolution will at least allow Egyptian society itself to move, however lurchingly, forward. More Western-backed torture chambers are no answer.