Pharaohs and Pirates

By Mowahid Hussain Shah

There is a limit to suffocation of freedoms and suppression of fairness. And when limits of humiliation are crossed, human beings rebel. It happened 22 years ago in Europe when the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989; and when Romanian despot Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, captured as they were attempting to flee their country, were executed on Christmas Day 1989. It is happening now in Tunis and Cairo.

Tunis, along with Tripoli and Algiers, was once the hub of Barbary pirates, including the fabled Muslim corsair, Barbarossa (1478-1546), known as “Red Beard”. They launched daring raids across high seas, venturing to distant coastal areas like Iceland in 1627 and Ireland in 1631.

In ancient Egypt, to paraphrase Shakespeare, the Pharaohs – who ruled for over 3,000 years – strode the ancient world “like a Colossus”.

While the pirates and pharaohs of yore had larger targets, the aim of present-day marauders is much lower and their reach much nearer: their own public and their own national exchequer, which they and their kith and kin plunder so recklessly.

Although Tunis lit the spark, the epicentre of the bonfire is Egypt. Egypt is the most populous Arab country, with a population of over 80 million (same size as Pakistan’s Punjab). It has, in effect, a no-war pact with Israel, controls the Suez Canal (which connects the Mediterranean with the Red Sea), was the hub of logistical support to the US during its Iraqi misadventure, and is the recipient of $1.5 billion in annual aid from the US.

Mubarak’s regime plays a crucial role in suppressing the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, which adjoins Egyptian territory. Egypt is a bulwark of the so-called ‘moderate’ Muslim bloc (meaning pro-West). It has been a reliable western ally and a foe of Iran. Egypt is also home to the Muslim Brotherhood, which shares affinity with Hamas. It is a strategic pillar of the US-designed Middle East architecture. Putting in jeopardy the aforementioned, therefore, shall have strategic consequences.

Once again, the US foreign policy establishment – driven and blinded as it is by pro-Israeli considerations – has been caught off-balance. Although local conditions ignited the blaze, there is a potential of the popular unrest assuming an anti-American and anti-Israeli flavour. Israel is in a state of fright about the watershed uprising that has put Mubarak on the rack. Its ripple effects in the Middle East are unfolding.

Thirty years ago, the warning signs in Iran were ignored by the chattering classes in Washington. It seems that few lessons were absorbed in monitoring events in Egypt, which was nurtured as Israel’s key ally in the Mideast. Once again, the US is on the horns of a dilemma, but as Omar Khayyam wrote: “The moving finger writes; and, having writ, moves on.”

Behind the fall of autocrats are two common features: Bullying their own public and buttering up their western patrons. Mubarak and his ilk may be lions at home but, before the West, they become meek lambs.

For the US to avoid its cycle of blowback disasters in the Middle East, it has to take two fundamental steps. Number one, to rethink its unconditional nexus with Israel, which fosters dual standards and enrages public sentiment – a recipe for disaster. And, number two, to learn to deal with genuine leaders – who, with all their imperfections, have traction and legitimacy in their own society – instead of foisting pliable despots who feel entitled to enrich themselves and launch dynastic political systems.  The shattering of the status quo and unravelling of an obsolete order is underway. In this 21st century information age of instant communication and awareness, there is no turning back.

The Nation


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