Koert Debeuf Column

Mr Blair: Your View Of The Arab World Is Dangerously Simplistic (Column)

FLI Blair

23/4/2014, Former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair gives a speech at Bloomberg articulating his vision on the Arab world. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg


On Wednesday 23 April 2014, Tony Blair gave a speech at Bloomberg articulating his vision on the Arab world.[1] On one point I fully agree: the world must engage itself in the region. We must do more in the Arab world, especially in Libya and Syria. And our commitment should indeed be based on values like open-mindedness and human rights. That’s the easy part. Problematic is the vision on which Tony Blair wants to base this commitment. He divides the Arab world in two groups: close-minded Islamists and open-minded secularists. Declaring the Islamists as the enemies of the world. This is not only a simplistic view of the Arab world, it is above all a dangerous, Manichean way of dividing the world in black and white, good guys and bad guys. It is the kind of vision that made the war in Iraq such a disaster.

After three years living and working in the Arab world I learned things are slightly more complex. Just one example is that Saudi Arabia, the bad guys in the eyes of Blair, are supporting Egypt’s military presidential candidate, who is a good guy for Blair. It is indeed just one example that the battle of ideas in the Arab world is not just one between dangerous Islamists and good secularists. In reality there are many battles going on, with often shifting alliances. Let me single out three of – what I think are – the most important ‘battles’ going on in the Arab world. Each one of the three are complex battles, with a long history and deserve many pages of explanation.

The first one is indeed a battle of ideas between Islamists and ‘secularists’. It dates back to the 9th century, during the Abbasid Caliphate in Bagdad. It came to an end in the 12th century, but revived in the 19th century after the invasion of Napoleon in Egypt in 1798. Many Arabs realized that Europe was far ahead. There were two different reactions to this realization: one was that Arabs had to learn from Europe and implement European modernity in an Arab way. The other analysis was that the Arab world was behind because it deviated from the right Islamic path and so that only by returning to true Islamism, the Arab world would revive. It is in this camp that Salafis, Muslim Brothers, Saudi Arabia, mullah Iran and AKP find themselves and share the same point of view. Of course the actions of Al Qaeda and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) are despicable and barbarian. But they are only a very small and extremist part of the larger Islamist movement. Calling all Islamists terrorists would be the same as calling all socialists dangerous communists.

The second battlebetween Muslim Brothers and nationalists – goes back to 1882 and to the First World War. In 1882 Britain invaded and occupied Egypt while crushing the democratic revolt lead by Colonel Orabi. In 1881 France already invaded Tunisia. Later, after the Arab Revolt (with the British soldier Lawrence of Arabia) pushed back the Ottoman Empire, Britain and France betrayed the Arabs by occupying their land, breaking the promise of independence. The colonial occupation of the Arab countries led to two different reactions. The first one is nationalist. The best-known example is the Wafd movement of Saad Zaghloul in Egypt, combining nationalism with liberalism. The second reaction was pan-Islamism. The most important pan-Islamic movement was and still is the Muslim Brotherhood. The main goal of the Brotherhood was the reinstallation of the abolished Caliphate and kicking the Western colonial powers out of the Arab world. Since the very start in 1928 the nationalists saw this pan-Islamic Brotherhood as a security threat to the very existence of their state. This is why Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait and the Emirates fight the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporter Qatar.

The third battle is the one between Iran and Saudi Arabia which started at the very beginning of Islam. This battle is partly religious – between Sunni and Shia – but mainly about power. Persia has always been an important regional power. Iran wants this status back and is dreaming of a greater Persia. That’s why Iran makes surprising alliances. It for example supports the Muslim Brotherhood dictatorship of Al Bashir in Sudan and Hamas in the Gaza strip, both Sunni. It also supports the Shia in Iraq as well as some extreme Sunni fighters in Syria in order to destabilize the more moderate opposition. This battle is also the reason why Saudi Arabia refused its seat in the UN Security Council as it thinks the US is making a major mistake in negotiating with Iran.

Understanding these three battle lines helps to explain why the deeply Wahabi Saudi Arabia is supporting the Salafis in Egypt but also the nationalist Field Marshall Sisi, why it is uniting the Gulf countries against Qatar, why it is at the same time supporting all kinds of rebels in Syria and why there is an intelligence cooperation with Israel when Iranian arms are on their way to Gaza. It also helps to explain why Erdogan is supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt against the Saudis, but is cooperating with the Saudis against Assad in Syria. And it clarifies why Egypt under Morsi was working on a rapprochement with Iran, but supporting the Syrian opposition, while Egypt under Sisi is not talking to Iran, but doesn’t want the Arab League to condemn Bashar Al Assad.

This overview of just three of the ‘battles’ going on in the Arab world is way too short and needs much more nuances in order to be correct. It’s only a short introduction to the complexity of the Arab world of today. Again, I fully support the call of Mr Blair for a real commitment in the Arab world. However, a commitment based on wrong and simplistic assumptions will only lead to a new disaster. It’s time to learn from the past and from all the mistakes the West has made in this region. And let us not forget that many of the problems in the Arab world of today are a result of a wrong and perfide policy of the West. Declaring Islamists the enemies of the world is repeating the same appalling mistake as after 9/11. It resulted in the illegal war in Iraq and destabilized the Arab world. But also, back then it created a vicious Islamophobia of which all secular Muslims became victim as well. It also made our Western societies more close-minded, leading to a certain victory for the far-right parties in the European elections on 25 May. Frankly, Mr Blair, I cannot believe you are doing it again.

[1] For the full text of the speech: http://www.tonyblairoffice.org/news/entry/why-the-middle-east-matters-keynote-speech-by-tony-blair/

by Koert Debeuf

FLI Koert Debeuf PortretKoert Debeuf lives in Cairo, Egypt, where he represented the EU parliament’s Alde group for many years. Currently he is Project Coordinator “World Leaders on Transitions towards Democracy” at International IDEA. He is a former advisor of a Belgian prime minister. Reporting from post-revolutionary Egypt, his columns are a window on events in the Arab world. Koert Debeuf is also author of ‘Inside the Arab Revolution’.

You can follow @koertdebeuf on Twitter

For more columns of Koert Debeuf, click here.


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