William Hague has not actually said that “Her Majesty’s Government really doesn’t know what to make of all this”. But he might as well have.
7:18PM GMT 04 Feb 2011
The sudden unravelling of the Egyptian political establishment has produced feelings of exhilaration and anxiety in the West. It has also exposed what looks dangerously like a hole in the middle of British foreign policy. William Hague has not actually emerged from his office to announce that “Her Majesty’s Government really doesn’t know what to make of all this”. But he might as well have. And that is worrying, at a time when Iran is hailing the vast demonstrations in Egypt as an “Islamic uprising”.
This may be wishful thinking from Tehran; then again, the crisis may indeed be the prelude to the transformation of the Arab world‘s most populous country into an Islamist regime. There are many possible outcomes to this drama. We can rank their likelihood, but when crowds of huge size and uncertain allegiance are milling through Cairo, it is a brave man who predicts who will be running the place next week, let alone next month.
Britain knows who it does not want running Egypt: an Islamic regime so fanatically anti-Western that it uses the Suez Canal as a weapon against us, reneges on its peace treaty with Israel and fosters instability in the region. Another thing we do not want is a fundamentalist regime that uses medieval Islamic law to harass its own citizens and terrorise the Christian Coptic minority. But here the West is flirting with hypocrisy, since we never thought to make a fuss about the behaviour of the secret police of the Mubarak regime, which for decades looked the other way while Muslim thugs were persecuting Copts.
David Cameron appears to have reversed that course, prodding President Mubarak to depart sooner than later and chastising Baroness Ashton and the EU over their reluctance to condemn state-sponsored violence. Yet while his behaviour has scarcely accorded with the values that the West so cherishes, President Mubarak has – as this newspaper has pointed out – been a long-standing and reliable ally, helping to ease tension in the Middle East at crucial moments.
If modern foreign policy is a trade-off between security and idealism, then it is easy to see why the need for regional stability outweighed human rights in the past. The events of recent weeks, however, mean that America and Britain will have to calculate the balance between the two all over again. This is a difficult task. First, because it will take time to evaluate any new Egyptian government – to discover, for example, whether the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood is sinister, harmless or somewhere in between. Second, because the Coalition government seems uncertain as to where that balance should lie: Mr Cameron’s more robust approach runs counter to the downbeat, even slightly defeatist air that his Foreign Secretary adopted when speaking about Egypt earlier this week.
In truth, despite Mr Cameron’s comments, the Foreign Secretary’s position is probably more representative of the Government’s approach to date. Britain has backed away from the interventionism of the Blair years; the budget for the military has been drastically reduced; idealism in the context of Iraq and Afghanistan provokes sneers from many commentators; and we are more cautious than ever about broaching the subject of human rights with China (especially given Mr Hague’s welcome desire for commerce to play a greater role in our relations with other states).
Yet if Egypt and other Arab countries turn on their people as a result of popular uprisings gone wrong, will we refuse to do anything more than wring our hands? It is hard to suppress the thought that the Coalition, preoccupied by cuts and unnerved by “Blair’s wars”, would have preferred quietly to ignore foreign policy during this parliament. But as this week’s events have shown, retreating from the world is not an option. Now, more than ever, Britain needs to define its role in the world, and to defend it.
- David Cameron: Stop tolerating Islamic extremists and respect British ‘core values’ (dailymail.co.uk)
- EU leaders urge dialogue, end to violence in Egypt (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Egypt crisis: David Cameron reprimands Baroness Ashton at EU summit (telegraph.co.uk)
- Egypt needs reform not repression, say EU leaders – The Guardian (news.google.com)
- Letters: Nothing will save Hosni Mubarak from Egyptians’ wrath (guardian.co.uk)
- On Egypt, Europe follows US line – Washington Post (news.google.com)
- Talking tough(ish) to Mubarak (economist.com)
- Egypt crisis: David Cameron to call for sanctions (telegraph.co.uk)
- Egypt needs reform not repression, say EU leaders (guardian.co.uk)
- Hague in call over Egypt government (mirror.co.uk)