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Democracy played second fiddle to stability in Egypt

IN the welter of comment emerging about the dramatic events in Egypt, culminating in Friday's resignation of the last pharaoh, it is sometimes hard to stomach the sanctimonious posturing, particularly from the US administration, about the Egyptian people being an inspiration for the world and the urgent need for reform and change.

This belated attempt to ingratiate themselves with the Arab street will cut little ice with the radical youth of Egypt. Nor should it. For decades, successive American administrations have been grateful to Hosni Mubarak and his assassinated predecessor, Anwar Sadat, for acting as their proconsuls in the region, not only recognising Israel's right to exist, but even being willing to enter into diplomatic relations with Israel, generally being a force for moderation in the Arab/ Israel dispute, opposing militant Islam and welcoming Western investment and military support.

This has meant for Washington holding their noses at the reactionary and repressive aspects of the Egyptian regime (of which there were many egregious examples), while occasionally opining on the virtues of democracy. Interestingly George W Bush was the most vocal advocate of democracy as a (minor) justification of the invasion of Iraq. There would be a healthy 'contagion' of democracy to other states in the region, once it had been imposed in Iraq so the argument ran.

Some eight years on, democracy has finally broken out in a couple of the countries of the region. But whereas the West could claim credit for the emergence of democratic regimes in Eastern Europe (following the collapse of communism) and Latin America, the reality in the Middle East is that values have played second fiddle to realpolitik and the need for stable access to oil. No wonder the Arab street regards the conversion to democracy for Arabs, now articulated by the Obama administration in a manner described by the Washington Post as "bouncing around like a ping-pong ball in a wind tunnel", as hypocritical and opportunistic.

Meanwhile, the question on everyone's lips is: "What next?" Do the dominoes in the area continue to fall? After Tunisia, and Egypt, perhaps Jordan or Yemen or Algeria where the last time democracy threatened to bring Islamists to power the West had a collective hissy fit? What does it mean for the future of the al Saud regime in Saudi Arabia, now clearly angered by what they see as US betrayal of their erstwhile best Arab friend in the region?

The social and economic circumstances in Egypt and Saudi Arabia are of course dramatically different, but the Saudi regime is now under no illusions that the US will support it if the Saudi people were ever to come close to overthrowing the Saud dynasty.

Even if Saudi Arabia, as looks likely, continues successfully to insulate itself from the winds of democratic change, there is a bigger worry for Washington: the future of Israel.

If the actions of the largely secular revolutionaries of Tahrir Square ultimately lead to the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood, the best organised of the opposition forces, as the real power in the land then Israel will find it surrounded on many sides by countries where some of the most powerful politico-military forces are implacably opposed to both Israel's very existence and Western liberal values. Hizbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt would form a troika whose inspiration comes rather from Tehran than from the Enlightenment.

Meanwhile, Israel is alone in the region in witnessing no celebrations at the departure of the Egyptian president.

The Israeli prime minister claimed to be ready for "any outcome" in Egypt. Mr Netanyahu also warned that Egypt could end up going the way of Iran, "where calls for progress will be silenced by a dark and violent despotism". To those who accuse Mr Netanyahu of being paranoid, one can point to comments from the Muslim Brotherhood's leaders calling for the re-examination of the 30-year-old peace treaty with Israel.

Moreover, Youssef al-Qaradawi, one of the Brotherhood's most influential figures, whose sermons have been broadcast to the demonstrators, has supported the stoning of homosexuals and the killing of Israeli children on the grounds that they will grow up to be soldiers.

The best hope for the future in Egypt may be to incorporate the Muslim Brotherhood into a ruling coalition which reins in some of the wilder rhetoric from the Brotherhood's outliers.

And tempting though it may be for Israel, an aggressive response to the Egyptian revolution is counterproductive. It is bad enough that the terms of trade have shifted against moderate constructive dialogue with the aim of securing that philosopher's stone, peace in the Middle East and an end to the Arab/Israel conflict. To reverse that shift is the pressing issue.

As the British foreign secretary said a few days ago, this is not the time for belligerence but "time to inject greater urgency into the Middle East peace process". Put another way, Israel's intransigence and President Obama's failure to bring sufficient pressure to bear on Israel to make the necessary concessions, particularly on freezing the construction of illegal settlements, to allow for a genuine two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians have actually put Israel's security at risk. And the moderate Palestinian leadership must return to the negotiating table before more Israeli settlements make a two state solution non-viable. President Kennedy, half a century ago, said: "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable."

Hosni Mubarak belatedly heard that message. Will Mr Netanyahu, President Obama and Palestinian leader Abbas absorb it too?

Ivor Roberts, President of Trinity College, Oxford, is a former British ambassador to Ireland, Italy and Yugoslavia

Sunday Independent