This evening BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze is discussing the unrest in Egypt. I usually find this program to irritating to listen to. The panelist seem to consider that it is their soul objective to be obnoxious and insulting to the “witnesses”.
In describing tonight’s program the BBC web site asks: “Is it morally justifiable to tolerate or support unpleasant, authoritarian, undemocratic regimes because we feel the likely alternatives might prove worse for the citizens of Egypt.”
My answer is simple: NO! No because it is wrong to support unpleasant, authoritarian, undemocratic regimes. NO because we cannot know what the alternative will be. And NO because we have experience of what happens when revolution finally breaks out in countries where the West has connived to suppress democracy. i.e. the people despise the West along with the dictator which they have just thrown off.
The classic example of this is Iran. In 1953 the democratically elected government of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh was overthrown in a coup d’état instigated by the United States and the United Kingdom. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was installed as Shāh and propped up by the United States until the revolution in 1977.
From what I have read the revolution was initially backed by a secular movement but militant Islamists used the chance to grab power. Secular Iranians tried to resist but were crushed by the new regime of Ayatollah Khomeini. They could have received help from the West but having been responsible for 20 years of their repression we were not trusted and there followed a caustic division between Iran and the West that lasts ’till this day. That is an example of what happens when we support unpleasant, authoritarian, undemocratic regimes because we feel the likely alternatives might prove worse.
We should support the people of Egypt in ejecting their dictator. If they then elect an authoritarian Islamist government then more fool them. At least the responsibility will not be ours and when they are finally in a position to reject authoritarianism we will be in a position to help.
More optimistically I believe that Egyptians will have learned from the experiences of Iran and Afghanistan and will reject outright Islamist rule though Islamists may have some role in a coalition. It is possible that Egypt could finally break the curse that has afflicted the Arab world for decades and start to modernise.
Imagine a middle east of modern democratic countries right on the border of the largest trading block in the world. I am talking of the European Union. While the world obsesses over whether China will supplant America as the largest economy in the world they overlook the fact that the EU has an economy larger than both. With the Arab world modernising trade would take off and this would be great news for Arabs and Europeans.
The financial crisis has caused market uncertainty and companies have been nervous about initiating capital projects. Investors are also unenthusiastic as many assets appear overpriced; there is even talk of a Chinese asset bubble. Consequently some sectors, such as insurance, are awash with capital.
If democracy were to blossom then this capital could find it’s way to infrastructure projects in the Arab world. There was speculation in The Economist in 2009 of solar powered electricity generation in the Sahara with the electricity transported to Europe across the Mediterranean. That is not going to happen while the region is ruled by unstable dictators.
Lastly consider the effect on the Arab / Israeli conflict. Today the subtext of much of Israel’s argument is that the Palestinians are just Arabs who are used to being oppressed and the Palestinians are no worse off than citizens of other Arab countries.
Imagine if Israel were surrounded by thriving democracies. Israel would be forced to confront it’s oppressive and racist policies toward the Palestinians. Could The United States continue to support the siege of Gaza or the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians? Shame on them if they did.