Egypt’s descent into Hell and the death of R2P

The savage purges of the Muslim Brotherhood unleashed by the Egyptian military have exposed – perhaps definitively – the dishonesty, hypocrisy and opportunism with which human rights discourse has been co-opted by Western states in order to lubricate the neo-imperialist ‘interventions’ of the last decade or so.

From the Kosovo war to Libya, Western governments have routinely invoked the rhetoric of human rights as a justification for bombing campaigns and invasions.   In Kosovo, the bombing of Serbia was presented as an attempt to prevent ‘genocide.’   In Libya, the imposition of a no fly zone in order to ‘prevent a massacre’ by the Gaddafi dictatorship quickly morphed into a broader regime change agenda in support of a civil war that may have killed 50,000 people.

In Syria in 2011, Western governments were calling for the overthrow of the Assad regime within months of a brutal crackdown on anti-government protests, and have, at least until recently, continued to insist that no diplomatic or political solution is possible and that the world ‘cannot sit idly by’ in the face of the crimes carried out by the regime (the crimes carried out by the opposition rarely feature in this kind of emotional blackmail).

The slaughter being perpetrated in Egypt has provoked a very different response.   There have been no calls for bombs to ‘prevent a massacre’ that has already started, no Syria-like demands that the military must go or for the regime to be quarantined.       The Obama administration has not even tried to use the lever of military or economic aid in order to get the military to moderate its behavior, and has done nothing but cancel a joint military exercise.

Though Obama has expressed his ‘concern’ at civilian deaths, he has also argued, in his Martha’s Vineyard statement last week that

We want a peaceful, democratic, prosperous Egypt. That’s our interest. But to achieve that, the Egyptians are going to have to do the work.

We recognize that change takes time and that a process like this is never guaranteed. There are examples in recent history of countries that are transitioned out of a military government towards a democratic government. And it did not always go in a straight line and the process was not always smooth.

This sounds a lot like an invitation for the military to stay in power and ‘manage’ this transition – regardless of how long it takes.       Britain, taking its cue from the Imperium as always, is also ‘deeply concerned’ about the violence and is calling for a ‘political dialogue’ that seems increasingly remote, unless serious pressure is put on the military to bring it about.

There are various reasons for the meek response of the West, which are mostly to do with its determination to support any regime that will ensure the continuation of a pro-Western ‘stability’ in Egypt.

But the specific nature of its interests in Egypt is itself an indication of the weak and essentially fraudulent use of human rights in the wars and interventions of the last two decades.         This was a relatively recent innovation in international relations that roughly followed the end of the Cold War and received its first outing in the wars in the ex-Yugoslavia, particularly in Kosovo.

Until then Western governments had spent the best part of the Cold War supporting coups, overthrowing governments and backing fascistic military governments in Africa, Latin America, South East Asia, the Middle East and the Caribbean without blinking an eye.

Whether giving active or passive support to the Guatemalan army, the Shah, the Indonesian military in 1965, Mobutu in Zaire, Lon Nol fascism in Cambodia, the Latin American ‘national security states’ of the 1970s, or Pakistan’s murderous rampage in Bangla Desh, the least that can be said is that human rights were not exactly an overriding concern in Western foreign policy in this period.

On the contrary there was, or so it often seemed, no regime too brutal for Western governments to work with, no dirty war that these governments were willing to abstain from on moral grounds,   no amount of violence that could not be tolerated – or facilitated – if ‘communism’ was on the receiving end of it.

The slaughter of 700,000 Indonesian communists?     Pass the ammunition. Contras carving up peasants and health workers with knives in Nicaragua?     Not a problem.       Mujahideen blowing up girls’ schools in Afghanistan to resist the godless Soviet occupation?     The moral equivalent of the founding fathers, says Ronald Reagan.

Massive violence inflicted on South Africa’s frontline states by the apartheid regime’s ‘total strategy’? Nothing that couldn’t be solved with a little ‘constructive engagement.’ Death squads in El Salvador?     A tragic but unavoidable necessity if civilization is to be saved.

And so it went on, even as the governments that engaged in such behavior worked themselves up into a paroxysm of indignation at the evils of ‘terrorism.’   Some attributed this willingness to ‘Kissingerian’ realpolitik or the imprint of Machiavelli; others argued that democracies were sometimes obliged to work with ‘unsavoury’ regimes in order to save the free world from the Soviet hydra or from ‘terrorism’.

Call it what you will, this is how business was routinely done between states, and few governments questioned it.     All this began to change in the 1990s and the terror-ravaged noughties.     Within a decade of the fall of the Berlin Wall,   Western democracies not only began to rediscover human rights, but some governments began to   argue that they were worth fighting for – on some occasions.

No longer was it acceptable for dictators to ‘kill their own people’ or carry out egregious violations of human rights with impunity.   Now the world – or those sections of it that called themselves the ‘international community’ were obliged to do something about it.

Indifference was no longer acceptable, and democracies were beholden to the principle of ‘Responsibility to protect’ (R2P).     ‘We’ could no longer sit idly by, but had to ‘do something’ – which usually meant bombing someone.

These arguments appeared to reject the ‘realist’ school of international relations, which argued that states were primarily driven by amoral considerations of national interest, and which upheld – pretended to uphold the principle of national sovereignty as the essential foundation of international stability, in favour of the forgotten ‘idealist’ tradition which attempted (ineffectually) to bind states to a common community with certain internationally recognized political values at its core.

According to R2P, (some) governments could override the sovereignty principle, not in pursuit of national interests, but in order to uphold universal   human rights obligations.         Some proponents of this idea, most notably Tony Blair in his 1999 ‘doctrine of the international community’ speech in Chicago, attempted to merge the realist and idealist schools by suggesting that it could be in the national and international interest to intervene,   in countries where violence and instability threatened to spill beyond their borders.

In practice however, the supposed universalism of R2P has provided a moralistic fig leaf for the projection of military power by Western states in areas of geostrategic interest.     This means that when our governments deem it necessary to whack regimes that they don’t like, then we hear a great deal about the human rights abuses carried out by the target du jour,  till the public is virtually crying out for the bombs to fall, somewhere.

In other cases, such as Bahrain, Uzbekistan or Saudi Arabia, our governments fall mysteriously silent and come over all nuanced,   suddenly rediscovering concepts like ‘diplomatic solution’, complexity or ‘democratic transition’, or respect for the internal affairs of the states responsible.

Now Egypt has been added to the list,   and the clear but undeclared expectation behind the West’s muted response is that the military can kill who it has to kill and get back to normal, especially since most of those of who are being killed are ‘Islamists.’

Sisi and his generals have clearly taken the hint, and have gone on the offensive with a viciousness that has no precedent in modern Egyptian history.

It remains to be seen how many people they will have to kill in order to ensure the required stability, or whether these massacres will evolve into a full-fledged civil war, but whatever the outcome, do not expect the ‘international community’ to exert itself too much to stop them.

Massacre In Cairo

There was a horrible predictability about yesterday’s terrible events in Egypt for which many different protagonists are responsible.   Primary responsibility, of course, lies with the army, for launching a brutal all-out assault on the Muslim Brotherhood, which deserves nothing but universal condemnation.

From the moment the army took advantage of the anti-Morsi mobilisations to seize power through a coup,  a violent confrontation with the Brotherhood became likely.   When the military then proceeded to lock up Morsi and other Ikhwan members on totally spurious charges, it became inevitable.

It was true that Morsi might have avoided this outcome had he resigned earlier, as he should have done in the national interest and in the interest of his own party.   No leader, whether democratically elected or not, could legitimately remain in office, considering the scale of the demonstrations that preceded his downfall.

Had Morsi recognized that, and called for immediate elections, he might have held off the army, at least temporarily, or at least made it impossible for the army to present itself as the neutral defender of the national interest and the expression of popular will.  Stubborn, cloth-eared, and politically inept, he refused and gave the army its opportunity, not only to destroy the Brotherhood, but to restore the old system of emergency rule which kept Mubarak in power for three decades.

The anti-Morsi movement also made a fatal mistake in supporting both the coup and the repression of the Brotherhood that followed – a repression that has no justification and which could only strengthen the military at the expense of Egypt’s delicate democratic transition.

Then there is the West, whose governments effectively supported the military, for reasons which reflect its usual predatory and self-interested motivations, dressed up  by pious rhetoric about ensuring stability and a restoration of democracy. By refusing to call the army’s seizure of power a coup, which would have cut off military aid to Egypt,  the Obama administration effectively gave the military a carte blanche to behave in the way that it has done.

This situation is not likely to be changed by insipid and hypocritical calls for both sides to ‘show restraint’ – as the Egyptian military is well aware.   US support for the military was largely echoed by Saudi Arabia, the European Union, and of course by the utterly malignant figure of Tony Blair, and such support was reflected yesterday in the same headshaking condemnation of the military’s actions by Blair’s creature Baroness Ashton and the dismal drone William Hague.

All these governments supported Mubarak and the military for three decades, and would have supported him now, had the Arab uprisings not brought him down.  Now they want a technocratic government, with the military pulling the strings, with the power to put the Egyptian economy through the IMF/austerity wringer and ensure Egypt’s continued collaboration with the American/European/Saudi agenda in the Middle East.

Instead they have a horrific and tragic massacre, which might just signal the Algerianisation of Egypt, and the descent of yet another Middle Eastern state into violent political chaos.   Whether  the Brotherhood has the will or the resources to mount a FIS-style insurrection and take on the military, it certainly has no incentive to take part in the democratic process, and that is not good for Egypt or anywhere else.

Now it remains to be seen whether the political and social forces that so magnificently brought down the tinpot tyrant Mubarak can find a way to avoid civil war, dictatorship, sectarian violence and the bloody unravelling of the Egyptian revolution and carry Egypt – and the Arab world – to a better future.

We better hope that they can.   Otherwise yesterday’s slaughter may just be a foretaste of even more catastrophic events to come.


Once More Into the Abyss, Chaps

Whenever the Quartet”s “Peace Envoy” Tony Blair makes any pronouncement on the great issues in the Middle East, you can always guarantee that the missile silos are being readied for action.  Last week Blair took time out from his unctuous tribute to Shimon Peres to call for the establishment of no-fly zones over Syria in order to avoid “catastrophic consequences.”

This urgency was based on the “confirmation” by British and US intelligence services of the use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad, which according to Blair, means that “we” must now act immediately to prevent such weapons becoming the norm.

At a speech to the 2013 Presidential Conference hosted by Peres, he condemned “the predominant emotion in the West today …to stay out of Syria; indeed to stay out of the region”s politics” and insisted, just as he once did back in 2002 and 2003 in a different context, that “as every day that passes shows, the cost of staying out may be paid in a higher price later….

My latest piece for Ceasefire magazine.   You can read the whole piece here.

Greece, Syrian Refugees and the Paradox of Humanitarian Intervention

There was a grim but essential story in last week’s Guardian, on the secret deportations of Syrian refugees by Greek police   across the Evros River border  with   Turkey.   The Guardian described how a group of Syrians recently crossed the Evros.  Some members of the group drowned, others made it to Greece, intending to ask for asylum:

Instead, they were arrested by officers in “blue uniforms” and driven back to the river. “There were between 100 to 150 people by the river,” said Farouk (not his real name), a 29-year-old from the Qamishli region in northern Syria. “They were of many nationalities, mainly Syrian. Some tried to make problems: they had paid a lot of money to get that far. When that happened, the police beat them. The police kicked and slapped them, including the women, they picked up children and threw them into the boat.”

No one with any familiarity with the role played by Greece in enforcing the EU’s immigration restrictions over the last decade will be entirely surprised by such events.    For years, refugees and NGOs dealing with asylum and migration issues in Greece have accused the Greek authorities of secretly deporting asylum seekers in the Evros region and  also in the Aegean,  without giving them the opportunity to apply for asylum.

These allegations include nocturnal deportations carried out by the army and police, in which migrants are rounded up at night and taken to the Evros, where they pushed into boats and dumped in Turkey. In the Aegean, there have been persistent reports of coastguard patrol boats driving back migrant boats across the maritime border into Turkish waters, puncturing their boats or confiscating their oars.

Such procedures are completely illegal under Greek and EU law, and have always been officially denied by the Greek government, as one might expect.   But Greece’s  ruthless treatment of migrants attempting to cross its land and maritime borders is not simply a consequence of the economic meltdown,  nor can it be attributed to rogue elements within the increasingly fascistic Greek police.

The European Union is also complicit in the transformation of Greece into a migrant dumping ground.   Deployments of the European Border Agency Frontex in the Evros border and the Greek islands are not just intended to stop migrants from entering Greece – these expressions of EU ‘solidarity’ are also designed to prevent Greek territory being used as a migratory portal to the rest of Europe.

These exclusionary efforts are aimed at both ‘ economic migrants’ and asylum seekers, regardless of where they come from.   And the fact that Syrians are now being turned away, despite the role played by leading European governments in fueling the mayhem in Syria, and despite the endless faux-concern expressed by these same governments for its victims,  reflects a recurring paradox in the principle of ‘humanitarian intervention’ that Western governments so often present to the public as a justification for the projection of military power in areas of strategic concern.

Whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya or Syria, proponents of interventionism routinely invoke images of death, brutality and civilian suffering in order to present bombings, invasions, occupations, covert wars and proxy wars as instruments of liberation and rescue.

But the West likes its victims to remain as virtual victims,  anguished faces on television screens that can make viewers squirm with guilt and support the sonorous ‘we cannot sit idly by’ pronouncements from politicians and a guilt-ridden commentariat that likes to imagine its governments engaged in some morally uplifting act of violence, somewhere,  for someone,  that can make it possible to enjoy a Fleet Street liquid lunch with a clear conscience.

In the discourse of interventionism, the victims we wish to save are often represented as collective abstractions such as the ‘Syrian people’, the Íraqi people’ or ‘ Afghan women’, in order to mobilize the public or at least reduce it to headshaking acquiescence and unquestioning passivity.

But God forbid that these abstractions should actually want to come to our countries. When that happens they become ‘ illegal immigrants’, parasitical intruders, a drain on public services, or a threat to our cultural identity and ‘social cohesion.’   In their own countries,  they may – indeed they must – suffer so that only we can save them, and the public is invited to feel just enough empathy with their plight to approve the next missile strike or Special Forces op.

Over here, their suffering becomes dubious and the motives for their migratory journeys automatically become suspect.  Are their claims to asylum are ‘genuine’ ? Were they really the same people we saw on tv?   Or are they in fact ‘ economic migrants’ taking advantage of our generosity?   Do we have the resources to deal with refugee ‘floods’ and ‘invasions’ when our governments are struggling so hard to take car of ‘ our own people’?   Are their countries actually as dangerous, violent and insecure as they say they are?

Proximity always raises such questions and complicates issues that always seem so simple and morally unambiguous when confined to the distant victim-countries of the Western imagination.

That was how it was – and is – with Afghanistan and also in Iraq, where even translators who had worked with Coalition forces found their asylum appeals in Europe rejected because Iraq was conveniently declared a ‘safe’country.   It was the same thing with Zimbabwe, when the Labour government introduced stringent new visa requirements that were specifically intended to stop Zimbabweans from coming to the UK to escape Mugabe.

And then there was Gaddafi. Even as our governments were bombing the hell out of Libya in order to ‘save lives’, politicians in Italy were warning of the danger of  a ‘Biblical exodus’ of refugees from North Africa.  In the UK William Hague one of the most fervent advocates of humanitarian intervention in both Libya and Syria declared unequivocally that refugees from the Arab Spring would not be welcome in the UK.

At least 600 people drowned attempting to reach Europe during the Libyan Civil War, some of whom were abandoned or ignored by the NATO ships and helicopters that were engaged in the humanitarian effort of bringing down Gaddafi.  Now a similar paradox – or should I call it duplicity – is evident in European attitudes towards Syria.   As long as Syrians suffer and die within their own borders – or in refugee camps close to them –  they remain worthy and useful victims.

But as soon as they come here, they cease to have any use at all.    And that, not the Greek economic crisis, is the real reason why Syrians are being sent back across the Evros River.