Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Egypt and the Arab chessboard

The egyptian upheaval  is far from over. It continues to set in motion reactions inside and events all over the Arab world.
The media continue speak too often  about the Arab world as if it were a coherent, organized “ensemble” of nations. Identical causes are also supposed to lead to identical effects. This superficial overview does not take into account the many structural differences which exist in the Arab world.  Suffice to scrutinize the workings of the Arab League which is a lame duck since the day of its creation. The almost identical mantle of authoritarian regimes does not cover the same reality. Likewise the hidden antagonisms between Arab states surface as soon as the binding element of religion disappears. The Mecca link or the anti-Israel paranoia cannot compensate for the tensions which prevail between Sunni and Shia  power or between Wahhabism and Jihadism.  It is hard to find an Egyptian who likes Morocco, or to perceive a common denominator between the necrophiliac leader in Libya and the, for the time being, rather enlightened system in Turkey. The fight over water will even further oppose brother against brother. The Gulf States prefer the allure of Canary Wharf to the voice of the messenger of Jihad.
 The Egyptian outcome is the result of a combination of multiple factors that are for their major part indigenous. We have only seen Act 1 by the way and the social, political, econnomic  aftershocks  remain unpredictable. The  possible trouble in Yemen, Jordan, Libya  etc. might have related causes but they might activate different effects.  In Egypt, the absence of a succession or identification with an agreed alternative leadership, made room for the professionalism of  the armed forces. The vacuum could be avoided. For how  long ? In the short term the power elites remain the same. So are the problems.
This does in no way diminish the importance of what  happened , but the outcome remains  ideologically more hybrid than coherent. The wave which sent Mubarak packing has no defined agenda.  There is no personality like Nelson Mandela or Lech Walesa  to galvanize the Egyptians inside and the Arabs outside. The strength of the change in Cairo is also its weakness. The street believes it got the upper hand but the Establishment remains, for now at least, at the helm. It is too early to predict the outcome of what might be a radical change for the better or an amended continuation of the same. The military are a state within the state . The recent cautious American embrace for democracy in Egypt could very well lead the military to take measures which look ”all right” on the surface but which might be just “placebos”, set in motion to avoid the repeat of scenarios like the ones we have seen in Gaza or Lebanon. Free elections gave – for the West and Arab leaders- undesirable results.  It is true that in Egypt a memory still survives of a pluralistic, multi-party society. The Muslim Brothers might not be as formidable as some predict. Still they constitute an organized force, rooted in history which could  take advantage of  opportunities that might appear once the euphoria recedes.
Nevertheless the contagion in Arab states is unlikely. The Iranian joker will certainly attempt to take  advantage of the situation, twisting events, attempting to  give the Egyptian change an  Islamic content, which it did not have. Until the elections the interim in Egypt might also set in motion uncertainties  which could  allow a spontaneous movement to be hijacked for a more perverse cause.  Mahmoud  Ahmadinejad will apply any pressure so that the Egyptian army (too close to the USA) or some Egyptian Kerensky might not get the opportunity to attempt to play the role of peacemaker with the civil society .On the other hand, the Egyptian Military might also change course and cling on to power. Other Arab states meanwhile will certainly initiate real or half-baked reforms to avoid at any cost a copycat  scenario.
It is clear that the West has largely misinterpreted the signals and lost consensual oversight of the events. The “intelligence” which still plays old cold war games was yet again faulty. The successive policy   adjustments  might come home to roost . They were as totally unconvincing in Egypt as they were in Tunisia. The Americans and the French were equally taken by surprise and were obliged to continuously calibrate their position, post facto. It is to be expected  that  the west might have to make some difficult choices. Incidents and turmoil will erupt elsewhere and it would be ironic that the USA  for example would back freedom “a la carte” and not as a moral obligation.  It is wiser to stay abreast of an evolution rather than to be a reluctant follower.  One has to follow a double track : dialogue with traditional US allies-preventive, discreet diplomacy- and encouragement of democratic evolution -creative policy-.All this will require tact and modulation. Iran is not the United Arab Republics, Morocco is not Algeria. All those countries are not  equal  , indifferent  pieces of a larger puzzle.  They  present us with specific challenges which in turn require tailor-made interaction both with the (friendly) power structure and with the legitimate demands of the people. Iran is a case sui generis because it doesn’t confront the West with a choice. The Ayatollahs must  go. The nuclear doomsday ambition has to be stopped.
 In the future, on condition that the level of overall security might have risen, a day might come when Israel might consequently be asked to lay its cards on the table.

Only the resolution of the Palestinian question is the “ way out” if the West wants to avoid undesirable results becoming  the offspring of desirable events.  A Palestinian state will deprive the extremists of the flame to ignite or of the message to enflame. The democracy in the present   Arab confusion can only become reality   if   it is also experienced as  a simultaneous equation for the making of a Palestinian state. This will in turn allow Arab states to live in the realm of diversity and not in the fantasy of some   Caliphat   which would  turn  the clock backwards  again.

The China Shadow boxer

In 1703 Lord Macartney was sent on an official mission to China. The purpose was to open the Middle Kingdom to trade  and to lure the Chinese with the latest technological “ know  how “ originated in the British Empire. The outcome of this first tentative approach  was a total failure. The Emperor Qianlong showed an almost insulting disinterest for the British and their ware.
A second attempt by Lord Armherst in 1816 led to the opium war, after the British Envoy received an even frostier reception.
Today similar attempts would have the opposite effect. The wares would be scrutinized in detail, copied, while the visitors would be anesthesied  by endless speeches, recriminations and banquets, which the Chinese  like to use to tire their guests. The WTO would have its hands full,attempting to penalize the infractions against intellectual property rules.
China is a problematic country. It is often seen as a homogeneous  land mass , inhabited  by Han Chinese , with little consideration for the Mongolian, Hui , Uigur , Kazakh and other various minorities.  Besides, the bright lights of coastal China hide a Hinterland where    economical  , environmental, political and religious problems abound. Tibet is a “sui generis” case which requires   a separate study , given the complexities which mark China’s sovereignty claim.

The Chinese leadership   remains basically an inward looking system which is obsessed by its staying power. The interest in the outside world is mostly opportunistic  , often neo- colonialistic  in its exploitative embrace. Foreign policy in the far abroad is amoral, practical and colorblind. Only the near abroad counts and there lies the lure of the dragon. It plays offended   by the “cordon sanitaire” which the Americans have conceived to contain its ambitions in the Pacific, the Yellow sea or the South China sea.  It is currently   elaborating its own” blue sea policy “ to counter this encirclement paranoia. Likewise it mobilizes its population in times of crisis, playing on the undercurrent of nationalism and historical hurt.
China does not want to get too involved in external “adventures”  ,where  the Americans  spend their money and  loose lives with no dividend in sight. They  use their ”soft power” to entice countries to sell them raw materials and energy on the cheap, but they are not inclined to indulge in esoteric nation building or the spread of democracy.
The close abroad (North Korea, Taiwan, Tibet ,S.E .Asia) becomes  a “chasse gardee” where any intrusion, primary from the USA, is seen as a potential hostile posturing. There the “motherland”  shows  its teeth.
The games Beijing plays in monetary and trade matters are unorthodox. It is surprising that this   scourge continues unabated.
It would be unfair not to mention the more positive aspects which derive  from  Deng Xiaoping’s ambitions. In the second world’s economy there is a slow bottom up increase in legal and political transparency. Citizens have already or can expect better standards of life and education. China expands its influence but doesn’t wage wars. It builds up its armed forces,but why should it be deprived of having an air carrier, like the French or the British have ?
 The Chinese have a DNA which sets them apart from Western historical models. They have adopted a Western Marxist theory but the latter is slowly retroceding  its intellectual territory to  classical Confucianism which fits the regime.
The Chinese are delighted to see the post Bretton  Woods  world order crumble and make room for “Asian values” or the empty  “Harmonious Society” slogan. The universal model which is so important for the advocacy of human rights, climate change etc. is slowly retreating in favour of ad hoc , BRIC type of formations ,debilitating a consensual world governance.
We have to learn to live with the world as it is. Fukuyama’s former ideas were already antiquated before the ink was dry. China will certainly evolve and when needed concede but it will never forget the past humiliations of the treaty ports ,unequal  treaties , the Boxer Protocol  or the looting of the Yuan Ming Yuan. Loss of face is for the Chinese loss of Self.
 In the collective memory of the Han Chinese  ,the leadership has a firewall which can be activated at any given time. China is a world player but it has turned its back to the internationalism from the Bandung days. This player is a reluctant one who puts self interest above Utopia. Left on its own devices it might concur, pressured it might bite.
The West and its allies in Asia should   learn from Lord Macartney  who advanced that nothing was more erroneous than to judge China by European conceptions. I am fully aware that this can also be applied to other countries, the difference being that  there is no” other”  for China  .We will have to compose with this partner/competitor who will never play by our rules, and why should  he ? We were the architects of a world structure that mainly served our own interests. Bygones are bygones. Policy rooted in nostalgia is D.O.A. It is time to redistribute responsibilities and concepts if we don’t want to end up in the Chapter of missed opportunities. Card games have to go on, even with a cheater in our midst. This  might even boost some creativity in  Western thinking, which is cruelly lacking lately.