Condemning Egypt violence is fine... now what?

Countries are what they are. They have the history and the people they have. Loud statements of praise or condemnation all make much less difference than we think

What to say?
Charles Crawford
On 15 August 2013 08:11

Over at the Daily Telegraph Douglas Carswell MP wrote a strong piece yesterday morning as news of the ghastly shootings in Cairo was coming in:

"Where is the principled opposition to military takeovers in London and Washington? Where is the condemnation of the treatment of Egypt’s democratically elected leader?  Where is the loud, and uncompromising condemnation of this morning's killings? Perhaps this is what happens when we leave it to career diplomats to determine foreign policy.  Equivocation and drift.  It does not do us – or Egypt – any favours."

I then posted a comment:

"Sometimes quiet diplomacy fails. But noisily condemning things foreigners do also is rarely effective in making them behave better, the more so when as in Egypt there may well be people in different camps actively wanting a bloody confrontation on the basis of 'the worse, the better'…"

To which Mr Carswell replied:

"I seem to recall we took a similar "behind the scenes" approach with Idi Amin. And Milton Obote. How did that work out? You might think that we're applying pressure. To those on the streets of Cairo we look like we're in bed with tyrants. Perhaps the relativism of our career diplomats is part of the problem. Similar phenomenon explains why US/UK officials were so keen to accommodate Moscow a generation ago... We need principles behind our foreign policy again."

Then me again:

"OK, let's assume you're Prime Minister now. You quickly put out a statement roundly denouncing the Egyptian military. The Egyptian military leadership then refuses to talk to you or your officials for a year or so and instead cosy up to China or Russia or France instead. Then what? What specifically do you propose?

"… The whole point of 'principles' is to be able to attach them to real life and help make things better. It's not 'relativism' to point out that some things will have both short-term and long-term effects and that not all of them will be positive. In fact giving such advice -- and listening to it -- is part of what democracy is all about.

"You also seem to know a lot about UK/US officials being keen to accomodate' (sic) Moscow a generation ago. I was there. You weren't. Do you know something I don't? Do tell!"

Mr Carswell’s swipe at what UK/US officials were thinking about Moscow a generation ago is curious. When does he mean? The mid-1990s when Western governments did favour President Yeltsin over the wretched ‘Brown/Red’ tendency that was his main opposition? 1991 when Yeltsin toppled Gorbachev? The mid-1980s when Mrs Thatcher proclaimed Gorbachev to be ‘someone she could do business with’, and was acclaimed around the world for doing so?

Nonetheless, the Russian example is instructive. A political earthquake collapsed the very Soviet Union in a matter of weeks. Russia had successive, more or less, free elections and started down the long road to building a modern free society. Significant Western support flowed in. No Western leader or diplomat saw all this as anything other than a fine thing.

Yet some 750 weeks later we are watching glumly as Russia edges back to a much less free and much more unpleasant system. Countries are what they are. They have the history and the people they have.

Loud statements of praise or condemnation (and attempting to back winners and marginalise losers) all make much less difference than we think. Underlying political and cultural rhythms in each country have a logic and power of their own.

Take Egypt. This fine article from Tablet Magazine (the Jewish Tablet, not the Catholic Tablet) argues persuasively that what we see as a ‘liberal’ tendency in Egypt is merely a set of ambiguous attitudes held by the many people who work for the sprawling Egyptian state apparatus - and need it to stagger on:

"The coup is merely the latest inflection of a longer historical arc that unites authoritarians and liberals in a profound ambivalence about Western values and the West itself …

“The West is a model to be followed, but it was also a source of feelings of inferiority. The liberals don’t want to be like it, but they want to catch up to the West to be like it. They dress like Westerners, they look like Westerners, but they also reject the West.

"… Arab liberals understand themselves as members of an elite class that shares little in common with the unwashed masses. If the ruler can’t modernize the masses, at least he must protect the advantages that the state lavished on the liberals. This dynamic explains why Egypt’s current crop of liberals has turned from Mubarak’s regime to a democracy that empowered the Brotherhood and back to the military regime that they hope will protect them from the Brotherhood."

The main reason why I think it’s almost better for Western governments to say as little as possible in these grim circumstances rather than make loud statements of condemnation is that words without action look ‘weak’. Any statements made are mainly for domestic and international audiences, not for the bitter rivals in the grisly Egyptian drama.

What else might we actually do? Take the issue to the UN Security Council and try to crank up massive international pressure on Cairo? Who around the planet is likely to support us? China? Russia? India? Brazil? How many Arab regimes will be upset that the Muslim Brotherhood is taking these casualties?

The United States has a very tricky balancing act now, given their close links to the Egyptian military over many years. It’s no surprise that they are grappling with their response – their hopes for making some progress on Israel/Palestinians do not need the added complication of turmoil in Egypt.

But at least they have leverage in their large assistance programmes for Egypt. Or do they? If they threaten to cut back on this assistance, will that make things better or worse?

Making a noise is one thing. Making a positive difference is another.

Charles Crawford is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw, he is now a private consultant and writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @charlescrawford

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