Sunday, February 27, 2011

Why does India turn a blind eye to tyrants?

By Swapan Dasgupta

It is reassuring that while the cricket World Cup is being played in the subcontinent, the organisers have wisely chosen to skirt Pakistan. Security may be the apparent reason but the ICC could just as well have fallen back on aesthetics: the very idea of playing at the Gaddafi stadium in Lahore would seem to be in questionable taste.

Such abhorrence for a dictator who has ruled oil-rich Libya since 1969 would have been unimaginable even two months ago. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi may have been regarded as slightly odd, even a potentially dangerous madcap with intellectual pretensions, in the smug world of international politics—only the irrepressible Oriana Fallaci was audacious enough to describe him as "clinically stupid", a view that is now conventional wisdom after his bizarre TV address last week. But this did not stop sundry ex-Prime Ministers, Nobel Prize winners, heads of reputable academic institutions and sundry Left-wing 'revolutionaries' from descending on Tripoli to confer respectability on the Green Book and the so-called Third Universal Theory.

Like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez—the man most likely to offer 'Brother Leader' sanctuary in case he opts for a one-way ticket out of Tripoli—Gaddafi sought to buy his way into the league table of erudition and greatness. His Zurich-registered Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation lavishly patronised apparently good causes. The London School of Economics, where his son Saif-al-Islam was taught democracy and good governance, was a big beneficiary of his largesse. As a thank-you gesture, it hosted Gaddafi at Houghton Street and invited Saif to deliver the Ralph Miliband lecture for 2010.

Great centres of learning, it is said, are amoral about the colour of donations—there is no stigma attached to the munificence of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford. Unfortunately, the pursuit of scholarship was only a small part of Gaddafi's foreign policy megalomania. When it suited him, he was equally generous in his funding of terrorism and armed struggle. Libya's role in the bombing of a Berlin discotheque and the Pan Am flight over Lockerbie has been established. Less well-known are its sponsorship of the massacre of Israeli athletes in the Munich Olympics and its arms supplies to the Irish Republican Army. The Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahriya also gave asylum to two army officers responsible for the cold-blooded murder of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman.

The hospitality Gaddafi showered on Mujib's killers stemmed partly from his distaste for a country created by "Soviet imperialist designs" and partly from his partiality to Islamic populism. Gaddafi hero-worshipped President Nasser of Egypt but, unlike Nasser, he was no secularist—he even enthused over an Islamic Europe in the near future. This may account for his wariness of India. He was openly supportive of Pakistan in the Bangladesh war of 1971 and abused Indira Gandhi in a language unacceptable in international diplomacy; and in his only appearance at the UN General Assembly in 2009, he called for the creation of an independent state in Jammu and Kashmir. Gaddafi also opposed India's claim for a permanent seat in the Security Council and provided covert assistance to Pakistan's nuclear programme. His support for Pakistan was, however, tempered by his deep anger over the execution of his 'friend' Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, an anger that has persisted.

Gaddafi's eccentric ways are well known. What is, however, perplexing is the willingness of the Indian foreign policy establishment to walk the extra mile to court him. In 1984, for example, Indira Gandhi was persuaded to go to Libya on a state visit. The visit proved a disaster after the Libyan authorities insisted that the Prime Minister cover her forearms.

Part of this desperation to oblige may have been dictated by energy security. But there was a political subtext to the prevailing fascination for Arab and African dictators. Since Jawaharlal Nehru proclaimed his unwavering commitment to all "anti-colonial" struggles, India was inclined to overlook post-colonial tyranny for the sake of being on the right side of history. Delhi even turned a blind eye to the harassment and expulsion of Indians in Burma, Sri Lanka, Kenya and Uganda. Every disreputable Third World tyrant was routinely invited as chief guest on Republic Day and honoured with state-sponsored 'peace' prizes. If Gaddafi and, for that matter, Robert Mugabe haven't been specially hosted, it is not on account of their unsuitability.

The West kowtowed to dictators for either strategic or economic reasons. India flattered them even when it hurt its self-interests. The details of Saddam Hussein's Oil-for-Food payoffs have provided some rationale to apparent acts of irrationality. If the files from Gaddafi's foreign ministry ever come into public view—as it should—India will be a little more knowledgeable about why a vibrant democracy hasn't been more discerning in its foreign policy.

Sunday Times of India, February 27, 2011

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

In familiar Company

What history says about the sources of corruption in India

By Swapan Dasgupta

In a compelling essay in Newsweek, historian Niall Ferguson contrasted President Barak Obama's missed opportunities in the Middle East with Bismarck's success in harnessing the nascent European nationalism to the advantage of the newly-formed German state in the late-19th century.

The comparison may well strike strategic affairs pundits as both facile and arbitrary: can decision-making in a complex democracy be equated with the resolute authoritarianism of the Prussian order? In his study of Bismarck, the historian AJP Taylor—someone who deftly bridged the gap between academia and journalism—had warned that "Great disasters are caused by trying to learn from history and correct past mistakes." Taylors's alternative was alluring: "it is probably better to think about the present, not the past—or the future."

It's a warning that has cut no ice. In a world where knowledge is driven by the principle of 'relevance', the temptation to see the past through the concerns of the present and profit from that experience is irresistible. William Dalrymple, to cite an example from nearer home, is presently researching a book on the now-forgotten First Afghan War (1839-42). The underlying message behind revisiting a campaign marked by initial success and subsequent disaster is obvious: Whitehall had learnt nothing from its 19th century engagements with Afghanistan and had committed the same mistakes in the 21st century.

Indeed, the War on Terror launched after the 9/11 attacks has generated a body of historical literature centred on the phenomenon of Empire. Written mainly by scholars deeply distrustful of President George W. Bush's foreign policy, they have been inclined to view the assault on Islamism as a cover for Empire-building and self-aggrandisement. In a war billed as being dictated by oil, former US Vice President Dick Cheney was often depicted as a latter-day personification of Robert Clive and Cecil Rhodes. Not surprisingly, the story of the East India Company's transformation from merchants to conquerors of India has formed an important part of the narrative.

The narrative has struck a chord among radicals and dissenters in an India that has hesitantly embraced globalisation. The East India Company has reappeared in populist political discourse as the symbol for corporations determined to subvert democracy and the rights of indigenous peoples for the sake of profit. This shrill denunciation of global capitalism has blended in neatly with the fringe but vocal anti-globalisation movements in the campuses of the West which accounts for Arundhati Roy's cult status.

For a country that has traditionally been disdainful of history, any attempt to imbibe past experiences is a welcome departure. To that extent, invoking the story of the East India Company is worthwhile. The danger lies in getting the wrong end of the stick. The Company holds out valuable lessons for contemporary India but the relevant lesson is not drawn from its creeping conquest of India—a feat that is near-impossible to replicate—but the story of how early capitalism subverted society and politics. In today's India where prosperity and improvements in standards of living appear to coexist with cynicism, scandal and corruption, another facet of the East India Company story is worth exploring.

To many early British administrators parachuted into India to bring order and streamlined governance, corruption often seemed a peculiarly 'native' problem. "Every native of Hindustan", Lord Cornwallis once exclaimed in exasperation, "I verily believe, is corrupt." It was a view echoed by Clive in his deposition to a select committee of Parliament investigating his 'disproportionate assets'. "From time immemorial", he explained, "it has been the custom of that Country, for an inferior never to come into the presence of a superior without a present. It begins at the Nabob and ends at the lowest man who has an inferior." Clive, in fact, claimed to have been "astonished at his own moderation" in resisting the blank cheque offered to him by Mir Jafar after Plassey.

Lest it is imagined that Clive and Cornwallis were guilty of creating 'orientalist' stereotypes to gloss over the venality of the Company's servants, it is interesting to note the first question posed to Sir Thomas Roe by the Moghul Emperor Jehangir in 1615 upon being asked for trade and tax concessions for the Company: "He asked me what Presents we would bring him." When Roe offered him "excellent artifices in painting, carving, cutting, enamelling, figures in Brasse, Copper, or Stone, rich embroyderies, stuffes of Gold and Silver. He said it was very well: but that hee desired an English horse." And Jehangir was no tinpot chief overwhelmed by greed and a desire to survive.

The suggestion that transactions in India always have a covert built-in quid pro quo clause may seem offensive but, at the same time, in the age of 2-G and the Commonwealth Games it does have a contemporary resonance. The annual payment of £27,000 to Clive for a jagir over which the Company already possessed rights was suspected to be a variant of the modern-day kickbacks that accompany defence deals and commercial contracts. What Warren Hastings disingenuously claimed was the "common Zeasut" or generous entertainment allowance "usually given to the visitor by the visited" would well have been construed today as bribes and sweeteners. Likewise, the endless retainers, some amounting to more than £10,000 annually, given by either the Nawab of Arcot or his rival the Raja of Tanjore to departing Company servants for promoting their interests in both Westminster and Leadenhall Street seem to have much in common with post-retirement consultancies and directorships offered by companies to retired babus.

The organised encounter between a commercially-driven Britain and a less purposeful India resulted in hideous political, social and economic distortions in both places. To Britons, dazzled by the wealth and opulence of the East, the ease with which Indians, legatees of an admitted rich civilisation, could be made suckers was puzzling. In the words of Charles Grant, a government official who returned from India in 1790, the people of India were "lamentably degenerate and base, retaining but a feeble sense of moral obligation, yet obstinate in their disregard of what they know to be right." Hastings wasn't so sanctimonious, preferring to locate the problem in the tradition of "arbitrary power". Today's anti-corruption crusaders have, ironically, also identified discretionary power as the root of corruption.

The ostentatious and vulgar 'Nabob' culture that stemmed from the interaction with India after 1757 also created widespread concern in Britain. The Company servants who returned with the huge proceeds of their 'private trade' may have bought prime properties, works of art and even seats in Parliament but they never attained respectability. Both Clive and Hastings were subjected to intense parliamentary scrutiny and were the targets of men such as Edmund Burke who sought a moral cleansing of society.

Justice never caught up with the Company Nabobs but the consequence of the fierce assaults on their ethics and integrity left a mark on Britain. By the beginning of the 19th century, the scandals of an earlier era forced it to move towards a relatively more ordered capitalism and an ideal of Empire centred on justice and fair play. Although there was always a mismatch between ideal and reality, the British 'national character' did internalise this abhorrence of excess. Some of this shift was reflected in India.

The post-1991 encounter with global capitalism has produced perversions that correspond broadly to the experience of the 50 years after Plassey. If history is prone to selective re-enactment, India can possibly look forward to what happened after the dust settled on the first flush of exuberance.

The Telegraph, February 18, 2011

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Congress has lost the will to fight back

By Swapan Dasgupta

From the time concern began to be voiced about the utilisation of public money for the Commonwealth Games, it has been six months of unending bad news for the Manmohan Singh Government. With the Adarsh Housing Society scandal, the 2-G scam, the furore over the appointment of the Central Vigilance Commissioner and the S-band controversy coming in rapid succession, the impression that the Centre is now either a helpless or willing partner in the organised loot of the exchequer is becoming conventional wisdom.

So politically debilitating has been the cumulative effects of these billion-rupee scandals that the Congress appears to have lost the will to fight back. True, there have been attempts to establish an 'immoral' equivalence. But repeated invocations of the misdeeds of B.S. Yedyurappa and the attempt to blame the erstwhile NDA Government for all subsequent telecom distortions haven't succeeded in altering the widespread perception that the UPA Government facilitated organised loot. Just as Hosni Mubarak couldn't secure his presidency by screaming 'Muslim Brotherhood', the Congress bid to divert attention to 'saffron terror' hasn't worked, except insofar as it helped Pakistan dilute the charges of its own export of terror.

Offence may theoretically be the best defence but brazenness doesn't always pay. Kapil Sibal, with all the dexterity of a good court lawyer, has attempted to show that the fuss over A.Raja and the ISRO are much ado about nothing. Sibal's penchant for the overstatement yielded diminishing returns during the Kargil war in 1999 and is proving to be positively counterproductive in today's climate of cynicism and disgust. Shrillness was rejected by the voters in 2009 and the abhorrence for it still persists.

This is a message that shouldn't be overlooked by the Opposition which is having a ball pillorying the Government. Before it gloats over near-effortless victory after victory in TV discussions and revels in the Government's discomfiture over biting observations by the judiciary, it should pause to reflect over the state of play in national politics.

The credibility of the UPA Government is rock bottom and so is the standing of the PM. The impression that Manmohan is mute spectator to the misdeeds of politicians and bureaucrats has taken root. Even his own party is worried and becoming restless at his inability to control the slide. The system of diarchy which was once lauded as a great political innovation is under strain and has contributed to the Congress pulling in different directions. The Congress worry is all the more because there is nothing as yet to suggest that the heir designate is ready to assume charge.

The UPA muddle should have seen a natural rally behind any Government-in-waiting. The Opposition's tragedy is that frustration with the Centre hasn't automatically turned into a surge in popularity of the BJP-led NDA. Although the suggestion that the BJP is in disarray is over-simplistic, it is fair to suggest that the saffron alliance isn't anywhere close to grabbing the political space that should have been its for the asking. The BJP has recovered some lost ground since 2009 but not enough ground to be perceived as the next government.

Part of the reason could be the absence of a clear leader to lead the charge. For various reasons the BJP has deferred any decision to 2013 in the belief that a year of relentless campaign will establish the leader as the alternative face. There are three clear possibilities—and a few who are claimants in their own mind—for the top job and a final decision will rest on two factors: the political mood and the imperatives of coalition building. If the craving for a strong, purposeful leader is paramount, the choice is pre-determined. If, however, there is the need to enlarge the NDA to include regional parties in the east and south, the choice could fall on either of the other two.

Yet, merely waiting for the new messiah to be anointed does not constitute good politics. The BJP has to be ready with the groundwork. The declaration of a PM candidate by the NDA is an important facet of the final 365 days of war but it doesn't constitute the entire campaign to reclaim the ground lost since 2004.

The BJP needs a determined bout of single-mindedness and a willingness to address popular concerns. In today's climate it means a commitment to relentlessly pursue the themes of corruption and economic mismanagement, issues that appeal to the widest cross-section of the electorate. It implies a willingness to put shelve pet 'ideological' issues on one side and not get derailed by Congress provocation.

And finally, it means an ability to transcend the churlish we-told-you syndrome and formulate an alternative economic perspective that incorporates the best practices of the many successful NDA Governments. Being an opposition like Mamata Banerjee is to the Left Front may work wonders in West Bengal's state of decline but the national need is to be an intelligent opposition, one that can shoulder responsibilities for people who have a lot to lose from the UPA's misgovernance.

Every party has its eccentrics and the BJP parivar has more than its fair share. The misfortunes of the Congress have given them a chance to go prowling for simple-minded suckers. For its own sake, the BJP has to ensure its madcaps are kept behind locked doors.

Sunday Pioneer, February 13, 2011

Friday, February 11, 2011

Melting pot menu

By Swapan Dasgupta

Two years ago, I was invited to a seminar at a grand Cambridge college. As is customary on these occasions, the seminar was to conclude with a formal dinner that sounded promising. Curiously, just before dinner I was discreetly told by a co-participant to 'tank up' at an improvised 'control room'. Apparently, some participants had insisted that they would attend the dinner on two conditions: that only halal meat would be served and there would be no alcohol. Rather than create cultural complications, the hosts had graciously acquiesced.

Apart from a sense of culinary disappointment, I was not sure how to react. For westerners (and, for that matter, Chinese), hosting subcontinental guests can be a nightmare: there are just too many dietary taboos. Many are vegetarian. Others don't eat beef or pork, while still others insist on halal. Some are teetotallers, but a minority will not accept drinking at the table. The net result: some people are gratified while others grumble silently about those who made all the fuss.

My Cambridge experience came to mind while reading the reactions to David Cameron's well-crafted assault on 'multiculturalism' at a conference in Munich last week. The British Prime Minister's speech echoed many of the themes voiced earlier by German Chancellor Angela Merkel but it broke new ground by formally linking some facets of cultural relativism to the threat of Islamist terrorism Europe faced from within. Cameron's contention was that multiculturalist fads had eroded a national civic culture and this in turn had allowed Islamist radicals the space to influence impressionable young Muslims in cosmopolitan societies. From espousing 'non-violent extremism' to becoming suicide bombers, he felt, was a small jump.

Cameron offered a robust prescription to meet the challenge: "(We) must build stronger societies and stronger identities at home. Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance…and a much more active, muscular liberalism."

At a time when there is mood of gloom and doom in Britain, Cameron's advocacy of "active, muscular liberalism" will invariably be misinterpreted as tacit endorsement of far-Right groups engaged in creating a demonology around Britain's Muslims. That would be a tragedy and will derail a much overdue process of the United Kingdom coming to come to terms with an emotional drift that has plagued it since the Sixties.

For starters, it is necessary to separate 'multicultural' from 'multiculturalism'. The post-1945 wave of immigration from the old Empire has altered the landscape of urban Britain. UK—and England in particular—now hosts people from diverse national and ethnic backgrounds. Far from immigrants and their descendants being an economic drag, this spectacular cosmopolitanism has actually helped maintain UK's post-imperial relevance. Diversity has enriched it culturally and economically.

Multicultural Britain is an irreversible reality. In an age of global connectivity it is difficult for the 'melting pot' experiment to be easily replicated. In matters of food, faith and even social attitudes, the inheritance of the 'old country' will persist for generations and may even be renewed. Indian restaurants will continue to thrive in Blighty; Bollywood films will influence fashion and fads; brown and black holders of British passports will continue to fail the Tebbit test at Edgbaston and Oval; and the mosque will remain at the epicentre of community life and social certitudes for many Muslims.

White, Anglo-Saxon Britain have accepted these foreign implants into an island nation with grace, generosity and remarkably little social tension. Yes, Britain has a race problem but considering the magnitude of the post-War redrawing of the ethnic and cultural landscape, it is remarkable that chauvinism and cultural xenophobia have not taken deep roots in mainstream politics.

In 1985, over a convivial cup of tea, Enoch Powell told me that "mass migration was unfair to both the Punjabi and the Brummie." He was wrong about the Punjabi who did well out of the Midlands; and he was only partially right about the Brummie. White working class communities may have resented odd job losses, taunted and bullied the 'Paki' boy in the local school and grumbled about the all-pervasive 'smell of curry'. But bewilderment with the unfamiliar was also coupled with 'passive tolerance' and a distaste for extremist politics—a reason why Powell, for all his undoubted erudition, was shunned by the Establishment after his 'rivers of blood' speech.

Over the years, and more so after the European Union expanded the labour market, this 'passive tolerance' has evolved into active engagement with diverse cultures. The process of integration and partnership would have been even more meaningful had it not been for two separate developments: the outpouring of multiculturalist fads and the 7/7 bombings which brought home the reality of home-grown Islamist terror.

Multiculturalism began as a noble attempt to widen the boundaries of tolerance and co-existence. It was based on the assumption that Britain was a rainbow coalition where the British inheritance and way of life were on par with those of other cultures. This assumption rejected integration as a social goal and reduced Britain to an ethnic menagerie. Secondly, along with the negation of a dominant culture, multicultural activists sent out strong signals that it was the host community that must stand down from its pedestal, vacate public spaces and make the necessary adjustments to respect minority sensitivities. They rarely stressed the importance of immigrant communities respecting the ways of the natives. Accommodation and adjustment became a one-way street. The perverse consequences were not surprising: inflammatory sermons in mosques and an in-your-face assertion of separateness.

Cameron is right to question this provocation to British tolerance but his invocation of 'muscular liberalism' as an alternative seems far-fetched. The multiculturalist parody was also a direct consequence of a larger crisis of values in British society. Over the past 50 years, the West has systematically have undermined existing moral certitudes—a recurring complaint of Pope Benedict—and made the foundations of a hitherto robust civic culture fragile. To undercut the appeal of extremism on its doorstep, the West has to recover a soul first.

Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle, February 11, 2011









Friday, February 4, 2011

The easy option

For Egypt, the future of democracy may not be as expected

By Swapan Dasgupta

The belief that 'right wing' conservatives constitute the "stupid party" has becomes conventional wisdom in 'enlightened', liberal circles. This aggregation became embedded in the world of intellectual fashion during the administration of President Ronald Reagan and was cast in stone during the eight-year tenure of President George W. Bush. And, like most things self-evident to the controllers of the opinions industry, it soon became a global axiom.

It is a measure of the fragility of certitudes that the past fortnight has witnessed an abrupt rehabilitation of both these pillars of the "stupid party". The spectacular mass demonstrations in Egypt against President Hosni Mubarak and the resulting apprehension in the western world have contributed to a grudging respect for the "democratic agenda" that both Reagan and Bush pursued in the face of mockery and derision from both liberals and 'realists' alike.

In a speech to the National Endowment for Democracy in 2003, Bush made a speech that, in hindsight, appears prophetic: "Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe—because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment and violence ready for export."

In promoting democracy, Bush didn't quite live up to the exacting standards set by Reagan in his unrelenting opposition to the "evil empire"—an opposition that contributed to the demolition of the Berlin Wall. But even his discreet encouragement of pro-democracy activists and quiet pressure on Cairo to enlarge the scope of civil liberties so infuriated Mubarak that he didn't visit the White House even once during Bush's second term. By contrast, as the WikiLeaks have revealed, President Barak Obama and gave Mubarak a very wide berth, listened approvingly to his paranoiac fears of Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood and finally reposed faith in his canny survival instincts.

The extent to which a beleaguered US is able to influence the internal politics of a country such as Egypt or, for that matter, Tunisia and Jordan has often been exaggerated. Neither Mubarak nor King Abdullah of Jordan and even the deposed Ben Ali of Tunisia were quite the puppet dictators the US routinely propped up in Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s. Mubarak, through the Egyptian military, the elaborate security apparatus and the ruling National Democratic Party, had roots in Egyptian society, particularly that section which benefitted from the economic reforms of the past decade. His position in Egypt wasn't very dissimilar to that of the genial Field Marshal Ayub Khan of Pakistan who replenished his army support with the political backing of rural and tribal notables attached to the Muslim League.

Nor was Mubarak impervious to the need for safety valves by which Egyptians could let off steam. Aware that the mosque and the bazaar were two focal points of opposition, he learnt a few lessons from the Shah of Iran and avoided a policy of aggressive social modernisation. More important, he tried to undercut an important political plank of the Islamic opposition by appropriating two of its themes: anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism. Paradoxically for a ruler who was an important ally of the US in the region and who remained committed to the peace treaty his predecessor Anwar Sadat had signed with Israel, Mubarak allowed his state-controlled media and the state-funded clergy to carry on tirades against both the US and Israel. Some of the anti-Israel propaganda, such as Holocaust denial, was deeply offensive. According to the Pew Global Attitudes survey of 2010, Egypt, along with Pakistan and Turkey, ranked as the country that had the least favourable attitude to the US.

However, state-sponsored anti-Americanism was coupled with harsh repressive measures against members of the Muslim Brotherhood and its more extremist offshoots and a wariness of Iran's attempts to export its revolution.

Mubarak, like his two predecessors Gamal Abdel Nasser, who ousted the obese King Farouk and Sadat who salvaged a measure of Egyptian pride after the 1973 Yom Kippur war, was a crafty politician. He wouldn't have survived 30 years in power otherwise. Unfortunately, unlike his predecessors, he lived in another age, an age where old certitudes had crumbled.

There is a facile view that the TV images of the Egyptian uprising are the nearest thing to Facebook on the barricades. This perception has been bolstered by interviews with breathlessly committed "activists" who speak the language of freedom and democracy but who, as was irreverently noted, are better known to western journalists than to Egyptians. While these middle-class campaigners against Mubarak have undoubtedly given the protests an acceptable face in West and helped allay fears of another clergy-led uprising by the faithful, it is important to keep in mind the fact the crowds who have thronged in Tahrir Square and Alexandria are made up of people from the lower middle class and working class. Their opposition to the Mubarak dispensation is not centred on the freedom agenda alone but against the side-effects of Mubarak's economic reforms: corruption, crony capitalism and a fierce resentment of elite lifestyles. Tactically, these issues have been subordinated to the demand for democracy, but only for the moment. The Muslim Brotherhood hasn't been submerged in a larger movement; as the best organised political formation, after decades of undercover existence it has carefully delayed its moment in the sun.

Should the shadowy presence of the Muslim Brotherhood behind the grouping nominally led by Nobel Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei caution the world against democracy in a region which has a reputation for being "non-argumentative"? This is, for example, the argument used, ironically, by Israel—the only truly functioning democracy in West Asia—for its refusal to deal with the Hamas.

There are no easy answers. Apart from the principle that the will of the people must be respected, warts and all, there is the argument of Israeli politician Nathan Sharansky in his seminal The Case for Democracy. Noting the penchant of Israel for assuming that peace in the region can only be negotiated by dictators who can manage an unpopular truce autocratically, Sharansky warned of the inherent fragility of "fear societies" prone to doublespeak.

"I knew enough about fear societies", he wrote, "to realise that such a regime would inevitably threaten Israel. I thought we should link the legitimacy, money and concessions we and the rest of the world were giving (Yasser) Arafat to his regime's willingness to build a free society in the areas…under its control. In my view, the Palestinian Authority had to be given the same choice that had once faced the Soviets: Build a free society for your people and be embraced by the world, or build a fear society and be rejected by it."

Sharansky's logic should suggest that freedom and liberal democracy are the only civilised options in the contemporary world. It is a proposition certain to be fiercely contested in places as disparate as Beijing and Riyadh, not to speak of 'democratic' Washington wary of disrupted oil supplies and 'democratic' Tel Aviv fearful of encirclement by the Arab Street. Despite all the expectations of the idealists camped in Tahrir Square, Egyptians can expect little consistency over the future of democracy. Showing Mubarak the door is the easy option. But what if a new regime in Cairo actually starts reflecting the popular will?

The Telegraph, February 4, 2011

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