The Tyrants’ Excuse

‘Europe bought into the tyrants’ excuse: that lack of Palestinian independence, not of Arab freedom, was the cause of Middle East extremism’

Speaking in Cairo last year, the European Union’s foreign minister Baroness Ashton mentioned freedom only once — Palestinian freedom from Israel — even as Arab regimes were oppressing their peoples everywhere across the region. The dogged pursuit of the peace process chimera led Europe to neglect its commitments to Arab reform and forget its economic leverage to force Arab regimes to adopt gradual reforms. Europe has shown a singular predisposition to buy into the tyrants’ excuse, which is that lack of Palestinian independence, rather than lack of Arab freedom, was the cause of Middle East extremism.  Europe patronisingly thought it knew what ordinary Arabs wanted without ever bothering to ask. Now, in their destructive rage, nations across the Middle East are toppling their rulers, and clamouring for bread and freedom for themselves rather than for the Palestinians. Woe to Western nations then for having failed too long to recognise that Palestine was not the issue.

Alas, the lesson seems not to have been learned. On the contrary, it is actively being resisted. When, in January, al-Jazeera and the Guardian leaked thousands of notes taken by Palestinian negotiators over years of bilateral meetings with Israel and the US, the two media outlets had one goal in mind: to discredit the Palestinian Authority, propping up Hamas in the process. Their timing was ill-fated, sandwiched as it was between Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution and Cairo’s days of rage. The leaks looked like a craven effort to change the subject and rehash the tired old creed that Palestine is the mother of all problems. With all its faults and shortcomings, the current strategy of support for Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad and his plans to introduce reforms, build institutions, improve transparency and create the conditions for economic growth is creating an environment which make it less likely for extremists to win elections, whenever they are called. It is a strategy that Europe, with its Association Agreements with Arab regimes, could have pursued elsewhere but did not because it believed that only when Palestinians had their state would Arab tyrants treat their subjects better.

Palestine was less frequently an issue than an excuse. With Tunisia’s leader having fled into exile and his Egyptian counterpart besieged by an angry mob, we should not forget that Middle East dictators and despots, satraps and aging autocrats, always found it easier to have a scapegoat than to take responsibility for their countries’ problems. Israel has nothing to do with a threatening youth bulge throughout the Arab world, low economic growth, exploding unemployment, lack of infrastructure and worsening public services. 

The problems that beset the Arab world today are largely the cause of Islamic fundamentalism. But blaming Israel is a tried and tested excuse. Europe should not have indulged the tyrants and should have called this bluff long ago. Instead, Europe let Palestine, Arab nationalism’s eternal source of wounded pride, become our trap.

By supporting the tyrants, Europe forsook their subjects. They, in turn, appeared content to be oppressed and convinced that their suffering was the inevitable sacrifice needed to liberate Jerusalem. Their oppression now comes with a price, and so does the decades-old acceptance of the tyrants’ pretext about Palestinian grievances. The instinctive reflex to blame others will be there for a long time after the dictators have left the stage. As Egypt descended into chaos, the regime’s tame media accused “Israeli agents” of  fomenting unrest, blaming Israel for problems that are entirely of its own making. The effect is debilitating for democracy’s chances. A people trained to believe such lies is unlikely to display rationality, exercise constraint and act responsibly once given the chance to vote.

Whatever the outcome of the current season of Arab discontent, one should not forget that the Arab order of things — pillage the state, lie to the people, deflect responsibility and pay lip service to Palestine — has ultimately destroyed civil society. This is an ill omen for those who now wish for a speedy transition to democracy. The wasteland created by tyranny left only one political force organised enough to exploit the current situation: the Muslim Brotherhood, a body dedicated not to establishing Egypt as the beacon of democracy in the Arab world but to introducing a politically subversive and subverted form of Islam. 

As Cairo’s season of discontent carries its message to the far corners of the region, the Arab masses are ready to seize their destiny. In the Arab spring of nations we may find that the tyrants’ excuse — choose us or the extremists — will haunt us long after the ballot box has issued its verdict.

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