From Egypt to Saudi Arabia: The world according to Tony Blair
While most world leaders are happy to ease into less controversial roles upon leaving office, the former Prime Minister has continued to play the statesman, finding some unlikely allies in the global battle against radical Islam
It was perhaps to be expected that a man so preoccupied with his place in history would not disappear quietly into the night. Not the painter’s life for him, that’s for sure.
But while most world leaders, upon leaving their seat of power, are happy to occupy themselves with less controversial areas of public life than dealing with dictators and generals, Tony Blair has continued to play the statesman. His role as envoy for the Quartet powers on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process demands that he do so, of course, but Mr Blair has gone beyond his brief in many ways.
“We have to take sides,” he said in a speech this week that offered both an updated view of the world and a call for action.
“The threat of this radical Islam is not abating. It is growing. It is spreading across the world. It is destabilising communities and even nations. It is undermining the possibility of peaceful co-existence in an era of globalisation.”
Mr Blair’s side, it transpires, is with anyone who is willing to fight radical Islam. In this battle, one that now dominates his view of the world, he has found some unlikely and unsavoury allies. Here are just a few:
Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the former army chief and Egypt’s leader-in-waiting, oversaw a military coup in July 2013 that removed the country’s first democratically elected President, Mohammad Morsi. Following his removal, thousands of Morsi’s Islamist Muslim Brotherhood supporters took to the streets in protest. Hundreds were brutally cut down in the streets by the army. The crackdown continues to this day: some 528 Brotherhood supporters have been sentenced to death, convicted of charges including murdering a policeman and attacks on people and property.
Despite overseeing this crackdown, Mr Blair has given Mr Sisi his staunch backing, and even visited him in Cairo. In January, he said: “The fact is, the Muslim Brotherhood tried to take the country away from its basic values of hope and progress. The army has intervened, at the will of the people, but in order to take the country to the next stage of its development, which should be democratic. We should be supporting the new government in doing that.”
Early in the Syrian civil war Mr Blair supported military action against the government to remove President Bashar al-Assad. However, as extremist groups have grown more powerful among the rebels, his position appears to have softened, and last week he suggested that Assad staying in power for the short term might be the lesser of two evils.
In Mr Blair’s own words: “We are now in a position where both Assad staying and the opposition taking over seem bad options,” he said in his speech at Bloomberg HQ in London. “Repugnant though it may seem, the only way forward is to conclude the best agreement possible even if it means in the interim President Assad stays for a period.”
This puts him at odds with most Western diplomats, who have repeatedly argued that Assad can have no role in a future Syria. Mr Blair goes on to say military action, including no-fly zones, should be used if Assad fails to negotiate.
While the West is locked in a tooth-and-nail battle with a resurgent Vladimir Putin over the future of Ukraine, Mr Blair argues that it is still possible to work with Russia to counter the threat of radical Islam.
“On this issue, whatever our other differences, we should be prepared to reach out and co-operate with the East, and in particular, Russia and China,” he said. “On this issue also, there is a complete identity of interest between East and West. China and Russia have exactly the same desire to defeat this ideology as do the USA and Europe.”
How this relationship would work in practice is unclear. One of the areas Mr Putin would argue he is doing his utmost to combat extremism is in Syria. Mr Putin is a staunch backer of Mr Assad, and has justified his support for the regime as a fight against terrorists – a label that he applies to the entirety of the Syrian opposition.
Mr Blair’s role as envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process for Quartet powers of Russia, the US, France and Britain has placed him at the centre of the conflict. His task was always narrowly defined as a state-building role – growing the Palestinian economy and institutions so as to better position it to make peace.
But Mr Blair’s view of the world as a battle between the forces of democracy and radical Islam echoes the position of the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Anshel Pfeffer, a commentator for the Israeli daily Haaretz, said Mr Blair’s Bloomberg speech “could have been an address by… Benjamin Netanyahu.”
“It is not only his dichotomy of the forces of enlightenment fighting the forces trying to plunge the world into a new dark age – but also his policy prescriptions proposed that tally with official and unofficial Israeli policies,” Pfeffer said.
When he was still Prime Minister Mr Blair described Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia as “vitally important for our country in terms of counter-terrorism, in terms of the broader Middle East and in terms of helping in respect of Israel and Palestine.”
Since leaving office, it appears as though his position has hardened. In what has been interpreted as a veiled reference to the Saudis in his speech this week, Mr Blair said: “It is absurd to spend billions of dollars on security arrangements and on defence to protect ourselves against the consequences of an ideology that is being advocated in the formal and informal school systems and in civic institutions of the very countries with whom we have intimate security and defence relationships.”
A reason for this shift may be the support given by Saudi Arabia to jihadist groups fighting in Syria.
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