Last chance in the Middle East?

By: Jacob Høigilt, Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).

This week, an Egyptian court sentenced 529 defendants to death after a two-day trial. Finally, after being mostly silent through more than half a year of brutal repression by Egypt’s military regime, Western governments expressed ‘shock’, judging the sentences to be ‘unacceptable’. Whatever the consequences this farcical trial will have for Western policies towards the military regime in Egypt (if any), it is probably going to be too little, too late. Since the military coup on 3 July 2013 over a thousand persons have been killed, and the super-rich Egyptians who fled the country after Mubarak’s ouster are starting to make preparations to return. The military is so far succeeding in overseeing a counter-revolution that will bring Egypt back to the good old days, minus the Mubarak family and their close friends.
Europe and USA have failed to rise to the occasion offered by the Arab uprisings. Five years ago, long-time Middle East observer and Financial Times editor David Gardner wrote a book entitled Last Chance: The Middle East in the Balance. He argued that in order not to alienate Middle Eastern populations entirely, Western countries urgently had to make three policy changes: Stop supporting dictators and accept Islamism in order to build viable democracies; reach a grand bargain with Iran, which is the key to stability in the Middle East; and start treating Palestinians fairly and react against Israel’s slow annexation of the West Bank. Now, five years later, little has been achieved on any of these fronts. In particular, the Arab uprisings and their aftermaths have once again showcased Western dithering and plain hypocrisy when faced with the chance to do the right thing: stop supporting dictators and accept Islamism.
The first sure sign that nothing would really change in the Western policy towards Arab countries was the lack of reaction to the brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters in Bahrain. The last sign so far is the depressingly subdued reactions to the Egyptian military’s takeover of the state apparatus, “hidden” behind the fig leaf of a puppet civilian government. Even this fig leaf has now disappeared, as General al-Sisi announced that he would run for President. Between the two low points of ignoring the plight of the Bahraini people and tacitly accepting yet another military dictatorship in Egypt, Western governments have done a good job of forgetting the 24 million or so Yemenis who are held hostage by their warmongering elites and failing to act decisively towards the Syrian regime, whose refusal to budge one inch has thrown the country into the abyss of a savage civil war.
Europe’s and the United State’s failure to send a clear message of support to Arab populations stands in contrast to the swift and forceful reactions to the Ukrainian regime’s suppression of dissent recently. The condemnation of Yanukovych is laudable, but it highlights Western lack of principles in foreign policy. The Yanukovych regime could be blamed for the deaths of close to hundred individuals; in Egypt, the army’s witch hunt for Muslim Brothers activists and liberal revolutionaries has led to as many as 1,400 deaths and thousands of arrests. Until the absurd death sentences of 529 defendants were announced this week the only reactions from Western governments were murmurs of disapproval. For Arabs in general and Islamist activists in particular it must be difficult to avoid the conclusion that a Ukrainian life is somehow more valuable than an Arab Muslim one. Western states cannot hide behind the excuse that the Egyptian situation is complex, and that a large number of people wanted to oust the Muslim Brothers and have welcomed the army: The situation in Ukraine is not much simpler, as the opposition partly consists of far-right activists and much of the elite (including the opposition) is or has been involved in corruption.
The West has had the chance to support the Arabs against their autocrats, but has for the most part failed miserably or dithered until it was to late; and the Israeli occupation and slow annexation of the West Bank continues without any Western state bothering to react in any meaningful way. To be fair, the failure to reach an understanding with Iran cannot be blamed solely on Western countries; but having failed to change the realities on any of Gardner’s three points for mending fences with the Middle Eastern peoples, one wonders how long this last chance is going to last. The West is quickly losing its democratic credentials, leaving the field open to countries like China to serve as examples for state-building in the Middle East. It is perhaps inevitable that international relations are beset by hypocrisy to some extent, but at least China does not flaunt its hypocrisy as brazenly as Western countries do.