Adrian Hamilton: Uprisings that may not presage democracy

International Studies
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The Independent Online

The riots in Egypt, as those in Tunisia and Algeria, have given rise to all sorts of hopes that finally the corrupt and authoritarian regimes of North Africa will be overthrown and that democracy and freedom will come in their stead. If only it would happen like that.

Anyone concerned with the Middle East and the wider Arab world must have long despaired of the way that the nationalist revolutions of the Nasser era have only ended in a western-supported gerontocracy which has locked up their opponents, lined their own and their families' pockets, and reduced their countries to a state of permanently suspended animation.

Yet you can make a fair bet that the latest popular uprisings in Tunisia and its neighbours are more likely than not to lead to a new and even worse form of tyranny. Food and unemployment riots are not new, after all. We've seen them right across Africa and the Middle East in the post-war period.

Each time the uprisings occur, the West, and liberal opinion within the countries, hopes for a moderate replacement, an opposition leadership that will rise to the occasion and introduce liberty and an open economy. Almost invariably it fails to happen. The Shah is replaced by the rule of the Ayatollahs, King Idris by Colonel Gaddafi. The government is blamed. The regime is attacked but power is eventually taken by those with the organisation to wield it, usually the army.

This may not happen in Egypt or Tunisia (with oil revenues and a small population, the Libyan President can buy off trouble in a way other nations can't). One hopes not. Both have an educated middle class and the basis at least of a bureaucracy that can operate. But in both cases the existing presidents have used their time to wipe out most of their opponents, including the more responsible leaders of Muslim movements.

Precisely because President Mubarak has proved so effective in stilling opposition, it is difficult to envision just who or what could replace him if there were to be real regime change. Unions, parties, and government bureaucracy have all been nullified and corrupted. The only non-governmental network of grass-roots organisation that really works is the mosque and the madrassa.

Something is stirring in North Africa, right across the Arab world indeed. But it's not necessarily what we would wish for nor, given what we have done to support the old regimes, do we have any right to try and influence it.

It's time for Abu Mazen to go

The WikiLeaks diplomatic documents have gained far more media attention but there is no doubt that the al-Jazeera leaks on the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations are far more important and damaging. Revelations about what ambassadors thought of their host country are embarrassing but rarely unexpected. But to have revealed your negotiating hand in some of the most delicate talks of their day is another matter.

One feels a little sorry for the Palestinian Authority and President Mahmoud Abbas for the way they are coming out of this. Given a weak hand, they were desperately trying to lever the Annapolis agreement brokered by President Bush in 2007 into something lasting. Had it worked, they might well have been lauded despite the concessions they were prepared to offer. But it didn't work and was probably never going to in the face of an Israel which knew that it had all the cards and could always count on Washington's support. Sympathy for Abu Mazen should not be extended too far, however. The fact is that he was prepared to give away far more than his Palestinian constituents, let alone the exiled, would ever have conceived – and all for a negotiation in which he never really stood a chance.

The really appalling revelation in the documents – and the one which Hamas has not been slow to trumpet – is to what lengths the Palestinian Authority actually went in seeking outside help, including Israel's, in suppressing their rivals in Gaza. The West has often been blamed, and rightly, for meddling to Israel's benefit, but this is a black tale of a Palestinian leadership prepared to sacrifice every principle to consolidate their own power.

Abu Mazen has to go, and a new Palestinian leadership must reach accord with Hamas, otherwise the Palestinians will always be on the losing end. Which is why the Israelis, with British and American help, were so keen to see them fighting each other.

Why is Obama channelling Bush?

It has not escaped notice that President Obama paid scant attention to foreign affairs in his State of the Union address this week. What has slipped by is what he said in the few words he did devote to the subject. What we were treated to was a litany of US glories. Its troops are leaving Iraq heads high. Iran has been isolated. New sanctions are being imposed on North Korea. The allies in Afghanistan are as one, and the Afghans are successfully taking over their responsibilities while hundreds of al-Qa'ida fighters have been killed.

It's not just the sheer unrealiity of his comments – politicians are rarely honest with the public about war – that galls; it is the fact that this whole section could have been spoken by President Bush without a blush.