Egypt’s Neocolonial Moment

February 4, 2011

Hundreds of thousands of people have gathered in Tahrir Square, playing music, listening to speeches, arguing over the future of Egypt, holding hands, playing games…. and yet, despite the atmosphere of liberation and self-determination this is a deeply contradictory moment.

While Egyptians brave repression, Washington and EU leaders are concerned about “managing” the situation. The press reports that an EU summit has been convened in Brussels, and Lady Ashton has been charged “with coming up with a policy package for promoting and entrenching democracy in Egypt.”

Signs are that Lady Ashton is keen to entrench Omar Suleiman as Egypt’s interim strongman, claiming after speaking to him that “what seems to be happening is that he is moving towards some kind of national dialogue.” That is, if EU leaders have not instructed her to push as far as possible for the retention of Mubarak. The best that Ashton has been able to come up with regarding immediate democracy is that government and people should “move forward together.”

Meanwhile, “conversations continue between Washington and Cairo: American generals talking to Egyptian generals, diplomats talking to diplomats and one president speaking to the other.”

If they are not quite singing the same song regarding how soon Mubarak should leave, the EU and U.S. have one thing in common – that it is natural and right for international powers to manage the internal development of smaller nations. If this may at first sight appeal benign, it would be deeply naive to believe that such management is selfless, and could ever result in a truly democratic (and certainly not radical) Egyptian government.

This is both a liberatory and a neo-colonial moment. And it is proving a hallucinatory one for some liberal commentators. The Guardian’s Michael Tomasky, for example, suggests that “If eight months from now, after the elections, there’s a democratic regime and a new openness in the country, then that’s great. Obama is a world hero. And if the democratic fever spreads, then he and his aforementioned team are some of the greatest Americans of all time.”

If Tomasky is sceptical of this, it is not because the likelihood is that American interests will be guarded in the region through the careful limitation of Egyptian democracy but that, because of Obama’s idealistic meddling, Egypt could become too democratic. As he laments, “I’m far from sanguine about the Muslim Brotherhood. They can’t in the short term be excluded from the process. But what if eight months from now Egypt is ruled by a fundamentalist regime that reneges on the peace with Israel, and the new leader visits Tehran and poses with Ahmadinejad?”

This kind of thinking is dangerous. It’s the kind of high profile punditry which ensures that (within the western press at least) efforts to manage democratic uprisings gain legitimacy. After all, when Mubarak leaves and assuming that a fundamentalist bogeyman is the inevitable beneficiary, then who is to say that backing the military to exclude such elements would be all that bad a thing?

The Egyptian uprising has provided a golden opportunity for such neo-colonialist writing to flourish. Israeli historian Benny Morris, for example, writes ominously of the Muslim Brotherhood, opining that “it is… likely, given Egypt’s position and history, and its own history, that the Brotherhood will follow the model of Iran and the Gaza Hamas. Both have employed extreme violence to crush their potential and real rivals to maintain power.”

This is totally un-democratic thinking, informed by the residue of British colonialism and orientalism. It is a variant of the rhetoric used across the world to justify colonialism: that we are here to rule you because you are not ready for democracy. You cannot make your own choices. Cannot be trusted.

If our democratic choices, such as electing George W. Bush or Tony Blair, make people in the Middle East uncomfortable and worry for their security, then there is no problem. It is a non-question. It is our security interests, real or (largely) imagined that matter, and this is a hard habit to rid oneself of. Read the press and you will see how true that is.

So we need to be critical of any attempts to “manage” Egypt’s uprising, mindful of the strategic goals that lies behind any fluffy rhetoric of rights and democracy. And now is the time to stand with the people of Egypt, be they members or followers of the Brotherhood (by all accounts not a majority of the population) or not.

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