Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Egyptian Struggle and Beyond

LONDON – The events that led Egypt’s military to remove President Mohamed Morsi confronted the army with a simple choice: intervention or chaos. Seventeen million people in the street is not the same thing as an election. But it is an awesome manifestation of people power.

Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood was unable to shift from being an opposition movement to being a governing party. Of course, governments govern badly or well or averagely. But this is different. Egypt’s economy is tanking. Ordinary law and order has virtually disappeared. Services are not functioning properly.

Individual ministers did their best. A few weeks back, I met the tourism minister, who I thought was excellent and had a sensible plan to revive the sector. A few days later, he resigned, after Morsi took the mind-boggling step of appointing as Governor of Luxor province (a key tourist destination) someone who was affiliated with the group responsible for the terrorist attack in 1997 – Egypt’s worst ever – in which more than 60 tourists in Luxor were killed.

Now the army is faced with the delicate and arduous task of steering the country back onto a path toward elections and a rapid return to democratic rule. We must hope that they can do this without further bloodshed. Meanwhile, however, someone will have to run things and govern. This will mean making some tough, even unpopular decisions. It will not be easy.

What is happening in Egypt is the latest example of the interplay, visible the world over, between democracy, protest, and government efficacy.

Democracy is a way to decide who the decision-makers will be, not a substitute for making decisions. I remember an early conversation with some young Egyptians shortly after President Hosni Mubarak’s downfall in 2011. They believed that with democracy, problems would be solved. When I asked what the right economic policy for Egypt should be, they simply said that all would be fine, because now they had democracy; and any economic ideas that they did have were well to the old left of anything that had a remote chance of working.

I am a strong supporter of democracy. But democratic government alone does not guarantee effective government. Today, efficacy is the challenge. When governments do not deliver, people protest. They don’t want to wait for an election. In fact, as Turkey and Brazil show, people may protest even when, by any objective measure, their countries have made huge progress.

But, as countries move from low- to middle-income status, people’s expectations rise. They want higher-quality services, better housing, and good infrastructure (especially transport). And they resent – to the point of mobilizing in the streets – any hint that a clique at the top is barring their way.

This is a sort of free democratic spirit that operates outside the convention that elections decide the government. It is fueled enormously by social media (itself a revolutionary phenomenon). And it moves very fast in precipitating crisis.

It is not always consistent or rational. A protest is not a policy; and a placard is not a program for government. But, if governments lack clear arguments with which to rebut protesters, they are in trouble.

In Egypt, the government’s problems were compounded by resentment of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology and intolerance. People came to believe that the Brotherhood was steadily imposing its own doctrines on everyday life.

Across the Middle East, for the first time, there is open debate about the role of religion in politics. Despite the Muslim Brotherhood’s superior organization, those who support an intrinsically secular approach to government – and this is true in most of the region – are probably in the majority.

Society can be deeply imbued with religious observance; but people are starting to recognize that democracy works only as a pluralistic concept, requiring equal respect for different faiths and allowing a voice, but not a veto, for religion. For a country like Egypt, with its immense and varied civilization, which includes around eight million Christians and a young population that needs to be connected to the world, there is no future as an Islamic state that aspires to be part of a regional caliphate.

So what should the West do? Egypt is the latest reminder that the region is in turmoil and won’t leave us alone, however much we may wish it would. Disengagement is not an option, because the status quo is not an option. Any decision not to act is itself a decision of vast consequence.

At its crudest, the West cannot afford Egypt’s collapse. So it should engage with the new de facto power and help the new government make the changes necessary, especially with respect to the economy, so that it can deliver adequate performance for Egypt’s citizens. In that way, it can also help shape a path back to the ballot box that is designed by and for Egyptians. 

Engagement is demanded elsewhere in the region as well. As for Syria, the worst that can happen is unacceptable: effective partition of the country, with a poor, extremist-led Sunni state in the east, shut out from the sea and the country’s wealth. In that case, Lebanon would be totally destabilized, Iraq further destabilized, and Jordan placed under even greater pressure (which only the king’s courageous leadership is managing to contain, on behalf of us all). And what would be left for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to govern would depend on Hezbollah, a terrorist organization, and Iran.

As for the Islamic Republic, incoming President Hassan Rowhani may want to reach an agreement with the world on the country’s nuclear ambition – or he may not. Either way, ultimate power in Iran still rests with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The world cannot afford a nuclear-armed Iran. And I haven’t even mentioned the challenges of Libya, Yemen, or, further afield, Pakistan, or the plague of extremism now coursing through the northern part of Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Central Asia.

The West’s interests demand that we remain engaged. We have to make decisions for the long-term, because, in the short term, there are no simple solutions. US Secretary of State John Kerry’s current dedication and drive on the Israeli-Palestinian issue is exemplary: If it matters, act on it, however difficult.

A long transition in the Middle East is underway. It is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. Many in the West believe that it should be someone else’s job to help sort it out. But it is our job. This struggle matters to everyone.

The good news is that there are millions of modern and open-minded people in the Middle East. They need to know that we are on their side, that we are their allies – and that we are prepared to pay the price to be there with them.

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    1. CommentedAhmed Hasanein Alhasania

      I am against Muslim Brotherhood as I am against 30-June-2013 & 3rd of July 2013.
      I wrote this in a twitter account on 17 September 2013, and I put it in the beginning to be clear before to write my brief comment on the article of Mr. Tony Blair.
      My comment is very short: 30-June-2013 is not a real revolution.

      I do not write this for first time now, I wrote this opinion in many articles in Arabic before, in July 2013.!topic/allegyptparty/D4cOYBfHPKc

    2. CommentedFaruk Timuroglu

      It’s impossible not to agree with Mr. Blair when he says, “Society can be deeply imbued with religious observance; but people are starting to recognize that democracy works only as a pluralistic concept, requiring equal respect for different faiths and allowing a voice, but not a veto, for religion.” However right after he stars talking about, “What should the West do?” for Egypt in which he focuses more on West's – thus Israel's – interests rather than Egyptian people’s.
      Whatever the West has been doing in the region intrinsically aimed at self-interest, which mostly, don’t coincide the interest of the peoples. West supported Islamist Morsi with the expectation; he could keep the status-quos and mollify anger of the people with religion, and didn't work. Same for Turkey; West – even for much bigger projects – vested in PM Erdogan. Now same Western commentators who were praising Erdogan few months ago label him as dictator, tyrant… as if they grasped just now.
      West should admit that they could no longer continue with despots, dictators, tyrants and start supporting genuine democrats in the region. It would be more suitable with their democracy rhetoric and more honest!

    3. CommentedMaría Eugenia Sáez

      "No role for religion running a M.E. country", says Blair, who supported Bush's evangelical & criminal attack ("an immoral war" said the Pope) on Iraq, thus destroying that region's prosperity, peace and sovereignty. Tony means to apply the rule to Muslim countries only, and to Iran most pressingly (a peaceful, prosperous and sovereign alternative, a country that has not invaded or attacked any other country in 3 centuries, unlike those 2 countries of the Anglo "Axis of Good"). Tony, Bush' boy, means to make an exception for Israel: a Jewish state.

    4. CommentedAllan G. Bleiken, Ec.D.

      Spoken like the descendent of a colonial nation. Who gave anyone the right to interfere with the internal political situation in Egypt? It is up to the Egyptians to decide who their government will be and it is no business of former colonial nations to dictate and interfere with this democratic process. How would Britain like it if Egyptians were to decide who their Prime Minister would be? I used to admire Tony Blair, now he is just a lackey for the gun boat diplomacy of the West/

    5. CommentedHamid Rizvi

      So Mr. Ex-PM, another way of you saying that democracy is good if it is to your liking. You and your countrymen are responsible for turning Egypt into a Militant state back when you were on a colonizing spree around the World. At that time your intolerance for dissent led to placing your puppets like Nasser at the helm who in turn busied himself doing your dirty work. Democracy is and should be for everyone and inclusive even if they live on Mars like you do. Unless, you allow these Islamist the space to feed on true democracy you will continue to have militants like Syed Qutb, who will then export this ideology to countries like Pakistan and the vicious cycle continues thanks to your brilliance and inability to accommodate dissent.
      What do you means when you say “A long transition in the Middle East is underway. It is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive”? Democracy Mr. Middle East expert is time consuming. Just ask the longest running democracy in the World; The great United States and they will tell you it is still WIP!
      I am not sure who appoints people like you in delicate jobs of being a “Middle East Envoy” ? but, no one in the Middle East in their right mind would trust a man who is responsible for the massacres in Iraq!

    6. Commentedcaptainjohann Samuhanand

      Sir, You say """I am a strong supporter of democracy. But democratic government alone does not guarantee effective government. Today, efficacy is the challenge. When governments do not deliver, people protest. They don’t want to wait for an election.
      Read more at "". It is the people of Egypt who should decide and not some street blocking demonstration in Cairo.

    7. CommentedGunnar Eriksson

      We cannot leave out the basic drivers in Egypt for the developments. The Military is basically in control of the economy, and Mubarak was removed because he aimed to make the holdings into a family business.
      Mursi challenged the military economic power and was removed. Mismanagement - maybe? To a considerable degree the lines for gasoline etc. vanished overnight and was at least to some degree created by those controlling the economy.
      The above shall in no way be interpreted as a support for putting religion before the duty to govern a country, but to keep the Islamic parties out of government in the Middle East is not realistic.

    8. CommentedPaul A. Myers

      Egypt presents the U.S. and the West the opportunity to buy their way to something better. The U.S. currently spends $1.5 billion a year on Egyptian aid; this amount should be doubled and tripled as an inducement towards a more pluralistic and representative government in Egypt.

      The U.S. has spent hundreds of billions on failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; now thee is an opportunity to spend tens of billions and possibly really achieve something, a better future for tens of millions of people. Will the political establishments of the West be able to seize the opportunity? The world waits.

    9. CommentedAlmir Colan

      Tahreer square can not accommodate more that half million people... where do we get seventeen million from? than in Nasr city pro Morsi protest they had billions... :)

    10. CommentedEdward Ponderer

      On the outermost layer, there is a uniquely Egyptian struggle taking place here. On a deeper layer, there is a struggle within the Arab/Muslim world. But deeper still, it is the universal one of trying to reach true globalization -- which will require not just as an ideal of its soul, but for the very functioning of its body -- true democracy.

      The problem is that such true democracy has never existed before, because in purely selfishness driven human relations, it was impossible. It would require the perfect marriage of the ideals of both Capitalism and Communism -- Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness AND Bestowing According to Your Abilities and Receiving According to Your Needs. This cannot happen until the later actions are in exact accord with the former perceptions. To think that you could effect both without somehow modifying human relations is called Socialism, something that the proponent of the other systems can honestly laugh at. When you just laugh at everyone, you establish Fascism, and this possibility remains the greatest of dangers. [Had Morsi had the brains that Hitler did, he would have successfully pulled off this Islamist & Baathist "ideal."]

      The only thing that has ever come close to this is the family unit. The family is perceived--to a greater extent by parents who chose it and generally live more up to it, and to a lesser extent by the children who didn't and are perhaps too immature to appreciate it--as the grater self.

      The key is to see the whole of Humanity (though naturally those more immediate and similar, to a larger extent), as the greater self.

      While Capitalism really afforded its ideal to the fortunate ones with the right nature and nurture to rise to the top of the pyramid, with those below under the gun of putting food on the table, and when there was some financial leeway, placed under continuous media pressure to spend it on things they didn't need, some harmful. [A 1950s Soda Pop Board of America campaign advises mothers to start their children on coca cola during infancy to help them with "healthy" socialization skills. Things have become more subtle, but have if anything, gotten worse.] The slide towards oligarchy of combined financial and political power in, for example the United States, becomes rather blatant regrading the steep upward climb of the average Congress Person's (Republican or Democrat) income percentile within the general American public. -- Might call it "the House of Lords" effect.

      Of course, Communism showed itself to be even worse and more blatant in its enforcement of its ideals, the Commissars holding actual guns to the heads of the general public. And as to those "ideals," add Orwell's Animal Farm observation that "some are more equal than others."

      In globalization, Nature itself holds the gun to us. We will discover interdependence the same way roped mountain climbers find out what happens when they let one of their number just fall off the cliff. And like the interdependence of cells, tissues, and organs in a body, individuals, communities, and nations will come to learn of the greater self.

      As to our primitive ego that still fights this, our greater ego which will seek life, liberty and happiness in this new reality has the integral educational and media environmental means to deal with it. Like the Olympic gold medalist born of the portly little child -- the greater adult self will in the end win out.

      And this will hopefully be the ultimate outcome after the Egyptian struggle, and the universal one beyond.

    11. CommentedJohn Brian Shannon

      Hi Tony,

      It's a well thought out argument and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read your fine article.

      If ever a country had the gift of being placed in the best position on the world map, it is Egypt.

      There they are, with the Mediterranean on the North, the Suez Canal and the Red Sea to the North and East, and all of Africa to the South and West of them. It is literally, the crossroads between Asia, Europe and Africa.

      Not to mention the Nile River, unimaginable agricultural and hydro-electric power opportunities -- and 'beyond unimaginable' solar and wind power opportunities.

      And they have more than 80 million people to help bring all those opportunities to fruition.

      It should be the richest nation per capita, on the Earth.

      But it's not.

      Which can only mean one thing.

      Bad management.

      Of course in previous centuries, excessive looting by colonial powers didn't help, nor did Egypt's own ill-advised military adventures in more recent decades.

      All those things are now far removed from the scene, so why isn't Egypt rich?

      There is no good reason, or no reason good enough, that Egypt's people shouldn't be enjoying their lives, to the same per capita income levels as, say, the fortunate citizens of Norway or Sweden, who have a very good standard of living, without the geological placement of Egypt!

      If Egypt's people are demonstrating against anything at all, they are demonstrating against poverty -- in what should obviously be one of the richest, per capita, nations on the planet.

      There is no reason for them to live in poverty, nor should they feel like second-class citizens of the world.

      It's their country! They have the right to make the most of their resources -- and they sense that something is wrong, because the least has been made with that nations great resources and geopolitical placement. The political cycle that we have seen over the past months attests to that sentiment.

      The cycle we have seen, will repeat endlessly, until the people are satisfied that the wealth of their country, is being utilized to its maximum and utilized properly. Not only that, but shared equally, or at the very least, with a minimum of inequality between citizens.

      The present demonstrations are not to be confused with political advantage, or politics at all. These demonstrations are fundamentally, about 'bread and butter' issues.

      When a government arrives in power, in Egypt, and can attract the necessary foreign investment to build the country's infrastructure, especially, the agriculture and (renewable) energy sectors and a massive transmission network North to Europe, South and West to the rest of Africa, ONLY THEN, will we see an end to the downward spiral of politics, nascent democracy, and faith in government institutions in Egypt.

      Egypt's next ten, or twenty, leaders should take a page out of former President Bill Clinton's book, and place a sign on their desk, saying; "It's the economy, stupid!"

      When they get that right, the rest will fall into place...

      As always, very best regards to you Tony. JBS

    12. CommentedLeo Arouet

      El pueblo de Egipto busca sobre todo un estado laico que defienda sus derechos, separe la religión y contenta a los fundamentalistas.

      Sin embargo pese a todo ello, parece que el país está dividido tal y como sucedió con Venezuela en las pasadas elecciones. La división es algo que puede darse en este Egipto que lucha por la libertad.

    13. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      Tony Blair writes:
      "...What is happening in Egypt is the latest example of the interplay, visible the world over, between democracy, protest, and government efficacy..."
      I agree with him that what we witness in Egypt, Brazil, Turkey or other regions is not country, religion, or culture specific, but it is a general crossroad involving the whole of humanity.
      But I do not agree that it is about government efficacy.
      Our whole modern socio-economic system has become dysfunctional.
      There is no country in the world where we could talk about real democracy.
      Democracy is a system of equals. There is no equality in the world today, and the greatest social inequality is actually found in the most "free and democratic" western countries.
      I have watched a brilliant movie recently titled "Cloud Atlas" which is basically debating the "truth", whether human society should be based on "the strong feasting on the weak" as being the natural order, or there exist a possibility for true equality among human beings.
      Today's human society is still based on the old truth, there is still very clear social layering, classes, castes, strong and weak. Humanity is working in a pyramid model.
      But as humanity evolved into a round, global, integral system where everybody depends on everybody else such separation, polarization has become self-destructive.
      This is a catch 22 nobody can solve or win unless we manage to build a truly equal, mutually responsible and complementing global human society.
      And since such a change is against our inherent, self centered egoistic human nature the whole process starts with changing the human being, developing a new creature that can consciously rise above his own nature.
      No government, social structure or change can be successful until the human being itself is changed.