This post revisits an event entitled Europe and the Arab Awakening in Regent’s College in London. The editor is an alumnus of the college and represented The Pakistan Institute of International Affairs. Major stalwarts of the British Foreign Office such as Lord Hannay (former UK Ambassador to the UN, who chaired) and Sir Sherard Cowper Coles (former UK Ambassador to Israel and Saudi Arabia) spoke at the event. Other eminent personalities such as the Guardian’s Middle East editor Ian Black and Hagai Segal of the NYU in London spoke at the event.
Despite the emphasis on “Europe” the event became, as expected, a debate about the Arab “Spring” which, some panel members argued, was better described as the Arab “Awakening”.
Following Lord Hannay’s introduction Sir Sherard shared his personal views about the Middle East. He began by pointing to the tyranny of the “opaque” regimes which had controlled the region subsequent to France and Britain’s conclusion of their League of Nations’ mandates. It was argued that the “bad” would get much “worse” and that the departure of the autocrats from Middle Eastern politics would be “painful”: but Sir Sherard placed reliance in the Arab youth to take the revolution (or awakening) further and he warned all parties concerned of the “long dark winter” ahead.
For Sir Sherard the suffering of the Arab people was a chronic pity and he pointed to the repression of Islam by “secular” dictators such as Hosni Mubarak to have bolstered Islamism and terrorism. He added that “it was irresponsible to blame Islam” and that “showering abuse on the heads of Muslims was a mistake” because “Islam offers a form of identity for the Arab people”; if the west undermines Islamic identity then political Islam and extremism flourished.
Sir Sherard pointed towards Turkey’s “new Ottoman hegemony” and mentioned that even most countries in the European Union envied Turkish achievements in building the kind of economy and infrastructure which gave the Turks a “sense of place in the world”. In relation to the power of the US, Sir Sherard reminisced that Britain had had its moment in the Middle East which ended with the 1956 Suez War when Gamal Abdel Nasser gave Sir Anthony Eden a rather bloody nose indeed.
Now, it was argued, America’s domination and influence in the Middle East was in its twilight and given President Obama’s endorsement of Netanyahu the stability of the entire region was, therefore, heavily compromised.
For Sir Sherard, “the end of the US moment in the Middle East” remained inextricably linked to the “fate of the Jewish state”: he stated unequivocally that Obama’s endorsement of Netenyahu’s politics was leading to Israel’s “assisted suicide” and that it was in the interest of the Jewish people to make peace with all the Arabs: the argument that “it was too dangerous to make peace” was inherently otiose. (Friends such as the US should compel Israel to make peace with “the Arabs”.)
Sir Sherard concluded by stating that an Israel which “cooled off the temperature” would not only repay regional diplomacy but would also foster constructive exchange between the Arabs themselves (which would ultimately provide stability to the whole of the Middle East).
He pointed to the 1979 Iranian Revolution and its exportation as a failure of the west’s “imagination” and, hence, President Obama’s digression/departure from his pre-election manifesto was against American, Arab, European and Israeli interests and Avigdor Lieberman’s characterisation of signing America’s foreign policy designs “with both hands” remained a very serious defect of reason and rationality.
Hagai Segal presented a complex political and economic analysis where he aptly argued that democracy, in countries which had been “Arab Springed”, was an instrument to facilitate “elections” and not necessarily the “goal”. He shared Sir Sherard’s view that Islam must be accommodated in the political process and Muslims ought not to be alienated.
Hagai also discussed the way states such as Iran and Syria problematise the Arab-Israeli issue by staging terrorist interventions so that they can repress their own people with their abhorrent propaganda machines: “they want to create other events to keep domestic scrutiny at bay”.
The Guardian’s Ian Black began by expressing his solidarity with the Arab people and he said that he felt positively about the events of the last year in the Middle East: the suspension of Syria by the Arab League was a further catalyst for change and the novel and extraordinary thing was that for the first time ever Israel/Palestine were partially out of the limelight. In truth the Arab uprising had “shaken” the region and the tremor was still being felt.
In relation to Egypt, Ian explained that the country was a beacon of hope and he was very excited to watch events in a state of flux but could not predict what would happen there.
Further he was “profoundly moved” by the events in Francophone Tunisia and said that it was inconceivable, say twenty years ago, that someone such as Mohamed Bouazizi could set himself on fire to spark a major revolution against the abuses and jobbery of the Ben Ali regime.
Observing that there was “tremendous variety” in the Arab Spring – he chose this expression over the “Arab Awakening” – Ian pointed to the excellent coverage which was provided by Al-Jazeera (which was a “cheerleader” for the uprising: I must agree and watching my friend SOAS alumus Jamal el-Shayyal from Tahrir Square is truly brilliant).
But in his exposition Ian also highlighted that that countries such as Bahrain were still delicately placed on the “sectarian fault-line” and that Saudi backed suppression of the revolution that country had done little to stymie the progress of freedom in the long run.
“There is tremendous variety in the heading Arab Spring” Ian aptly remarked and I must say that he is quite right. For him the narrative of the Arab Spring was “written by the people and the fight back against freedom is continuing by the dictators such as Assad of Syria.”
Ian espoused a very positive future of what was to come in the Middle East by concluding that commonality of language and the spirit of the people would achieve democracy by establishing the rule of law and social justice in which dignity remained a key ingredient.
“Our weapons are our dreams” was cited by Ian (as the maxim of the uprising) and he remained extremely critical of Saudi Arabia’s historic support for Salafists.
He concluded by reminding everyone that “the genie of people power has come out of the bottle and will not go away anytime soon.”
Well said Ian Black!
The talk ultimately became one where the Middle East dominated and a discussion about Europe’s influence in the Middle East remained ancillary to the spectacular events which have recently occurred in the Arab world.
Robert Moreland (Treasurer, European Movement 2003-2008 and former MEP) was not at all pleased that the panel failed to talk about the two-state solution in Palestine/Israel and was even more furious that no one raised the issue of the settlements. (He was quite right as well.)
Lord Hannay, however, with his customary charisma pacified Robert’s anger by referring him to Sir Sherard’s comments about “Israel’s assisted suicide”.
There was, moreover, a tendency to discriminate against the Iranian Mullahs for being a “theocracy” (which they indeed are): the idea of accommodating the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian politics, however, after the demise of Mubarak’s venal regime is at variance with segregating Iran’s political masters precisely because once the Brotherhood is in power it will no doubt revisit its Qutbist ideology and the extreme Islamist proclivities of Hasan al-Banna.
The idea that Iranian Islamists are bad and Egyptian extremists, following “reforms” in their camp, are good is a dangerous thing and a theme which this blog – along with addressing and analysing the political predicaments of other Arab countries – will explore in future.
When an Iranian student of the college asked whether Iran would be attacked for pursuing WMD the panellists’ unequivocal answer was “NO”.
Pakistan Horizon would like to thank Professor SN Drew and Teresa Plant of Regent’s College for organising a very thought provoking event. Since Europe was incidental to the Middle East in the talk, this blog is setting out the paper (in Scribd below) which Professor Drew and Teresa handed out.