What New Delhi can learn from Cairo

My following article is published by leading Indian magazine Tehelka:

The Middle East is the region where global empires lavishly exercise their chequebook. Since the Second World War, America has bribed, cajoled and backed autocratic regimes in the name of stability.

Israel, self-described as the only democracy in the area, has been insulated from the vagaries of democratic politics by simply colluding with dictatorships across its various borders.

Zionism has thrived due to Arab leader corruption and silence in the face of occupation against Palestinian lands.

But the mass uprisings across Egypt are threatening these cosy arrangements.

The Israeli mainstream is fearful of what Arab democracy may mean, but for the majority in Egypt decades of repression may be coming to an end.

The resignation of President Hosni Mubarak is the first necessary step in restoring dignity to the Egyptian political process, though it is only the beginning.

The millions of demonstrators won’t tolerate a military coup simply replacing one tyrant with another.

We can marvel at the success of a peaceful protest movement and wonder which other western-backed thugs may be next.

Today, the Muslim world sees what is possible with weeks of determined protest; America and Israel no longer control the agenda of who rules the Arab street.

Tel Aviv is already fearful of what true democracy may mean for its position.

While there is no unified message of the protesters for the future, a few key demands are clear; free and fair elections, an orderly transition, an end to torture, better employment opportunities and an end to being manipulated by foreign powers.

Sadly and predictably, many neo-conservative and Jewish commentators in America are whipping up fear of an Islamist take-over of Egypt while the situation remains incredibly fluid.

Besides, the western world has consistently refused to accept to its own detriment the legitimate positions of many Muslims since 11 September 2001 who wants their religion integrated into a democratic system.

Turkey is a model here, an imperfect example of an Islamic democracy.

Former Egyptian President Mubarak, wholly supported by Washington and Tel Aviv for three decades and much of the US corporate press, has shaped a state that routinely tortured its own citizens as well as suspects in the American-led “war on terror.”

New Vice-President Omar Suleiman is implicated in a range of crimes committed since 9/11, including overseeing torture himself against alleged terror suspects.

The New Yorker’s Jane Meyer wrote last week:

“Technically, U.S. law required the C.I.A. to seek “assurances” from Egypt that rendered suspects wouldn’t face torture. But under Suleiman’s reign at the intelligence service, such assurances were considered close to worthless.

As Michael Scheuer, a former C.I.A. officer who helped set up the practice of rendition, later testified before Congress, even if such “assurances” were written in indelible ink, “they weren’t worth a bucket of warm spit.””

In the last weeks, Egyptians authorities blocked Internet access and mobile phone services in an attempt to stop information getting out to the world.

It failed spectacularly but far too many western commentators were quick to jump to conclusions and claim this was a Facebook revolution or Twitter revolution.

But, despite Facebook playing a key role in initially organising outrage, the vast majority of Egyptians didn’t need a website to register their anger.

It was pleasing to read Google and Twitter joining forces to launch SpeaktoTweet, a service allowing Egyptians to call an international number and record a voice message that would then be tweeted from a Twitter account.

It is increasingly difficult to silence the masses in a globalised age, though we shouldn’t be seduced by the false belief that free Internet access automatically brings western-style democracy.

The western reaction to the Egyptian protests has been a mixture of awe and confusion.

The internal logic of many westerners is contradictory and hypocritical.

Backing the US-led invasion of Iraq, currently run as a Tehran-friendly police state, was seen as a noble gesture to liberate the oppressed masses but when the citizens agitate themselves without our help they’re lectured about remaining ‘moderate’.

Famed Slavoj Zizek wrote last week in the UK Guardian that the West so rarely sees a revolutionary spirit in its own countries that there is automatic suspicion when it occurs somewhere else, such as Egypt.

Ironically, post 9/11 paranoia about Islamic fundamentalism is due to its presence in nations the West has supposedly ‘liberated’, namely Iraq and Afghanistan.

Neither nation has a long history of religious extremism; foreign meddling has allowed these forces to incubate.

Dictatorships in the Arab world don’t just materialise, they are created and sustained over decades.

Washington funds Cairo to the tunes of billions annually (second only to Israel) and yet the results are clear to see; stagnation and political corruption on a vast scale.

This arrangement suits America, Israel and the West just fine; client states aren’t independent thinkers and that’s how their funders like it.

Take former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who told CNN that Mubarak had been ‘immensely courageous and a force for good’ in the Middle East over the Israel-Palestine ‘peace process’.

Blair was merely echoing the standard post 9/11 view of the region; political Islam must never be engaged, even if parties win legitimate elections (witness Hamas after its victory in Palestine in 2006).

But what comes after Mubarak? His infrastructure of terror must be dismantled but this can’t happen unless Western policy fundamentally reviews its attitude toward the Middle East.

Why should only Israeli Jews be allowed freedom in the region? Must Arabs be suppressed for the pleasure of the Zionist state?

Sixty years is more than enough of this paradigm. And Arab people-power has loudly announced that it won’t tolerate decades more living under autocracy.

Egypt provides salutary lessons for other nations, including India.

Mubarak created a highly centralised state of control allowing him to crush potential rivals. But the voice of the people has been bubbling beneath the surface for years – I witnessed it during various visits there, from bloggers, union members and dissidents.

Cairo, however, refused to listen, believing brute force would allow the status-quo to survive.

Responsive, democratic governments work best when the interests of the people, especially minorities, aren’t ignored but acted upon.

Blocking the Internet in a large country is almost impossible in the 21st century due to the economy’s reliance on it but Egypt joins an increasingly long list of nations attempting to shut out modernity (including Myanmar and North Korea).

Although the central government in New Delhi is unlikely to administer such a draconian plan, leaders should be open to robust debate on the most controversial subjects, including Kashmir and the Naxalites.

Mature democracies are ones that welcome disagreement and don’t threaten prosecution for those who dare challenge the mainstream view.

There are disturbing signs in many western nations of overzealous officials wanting to regulate the openness of the Internet in the fight against ‘terrorism’.

This must be resisted.

Likewise in India, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would be well advised to listen to dissent due to the decentralised nature of his country; ignoring such difficult questions is not the sign of a leader who consults but a man who relies on harsh counter-terrorism techniques to quash dissent.

Hosni Mubarak could inform him of the dangers of this path.

Australian journalist and author Antony Loewenstein, 36, has published a best-selling book on the Israel/Palestine conflict, My Israel Question, and has spent time working and travelling across the Middle East and beyond. His book, The Blogging Revolution, examines the role of the internet in repressive regimes, including Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and China. He has written for publications such as the Guardian, Haaretz and the BBC World and regularly appears in the local and global media discussing human rights and politics.

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