Across the Middle East historic uprisings show the power that ordinary people can still wield. But what these tumultuous events have also brought into sharp focus is the sheer hypocrisy of Western governments, in both their policies concerning specific dictatorships, and the doublespeak used to mitigate those relationships. For years the West propped up Egypt’s President Mubarak, a despot who oppressed his own people. The recent revolution, however, was roundly applauded and, in the end, diplomatically supported by the international community. This immediately reveals the morally questionable discourse of the West which supposes that a dictator is palatable as long as he (it’s always a man) is ‘our’ dictator. Such a policy remains intact until that situation becomes politically untenable (a point made by Noam Chomsky in his interview with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight 08/03/2011). The old chestnut of regional stability is usually the reason given for the West’s support of an autocratic ruler; such an argument can be critiqued in itself as evidence of a Eurocentric, racist mindset. But any altruistic notions of promoting stability through diplomacy are, in reality, about trade, and usually a specific type of trade: arms and oil. A dictator’s human rights record can suddenly seem quite hazy when these two commodities are on the bargaining table. The question of how a dictator wants to use said arms, and the backhanders on offer for a reasonable crude price, is a question the West rarely asks. If the price is right, morality disappears.
Yet, when the citizens of Egypt unceremoniously ejected Mubarak from his position it was billed as a triumph of democracy. Barak Obama said, “the people of Egypt have spoken. Their voices have been heard, and Egypt will never be the same”. Obviously Egyptian voices were much quieter when the United States was helping to maintain the Mubarak regime. David Cameron also jumped on the freedom and democracy bandwagon: “Egypt now has a really precious moment of opportunity to have a government that can bring the country together. As a friend of Egypt, and the Egyptian people, we stand ready to help in any way we can”. Cameron, eager to show ‘solidarity’ with the newly ‘free’ Egyptians, was the first to arrive in the region to bask in the reflected glory of this ‘liberated’ state, or as he put it, offer Britain’s help in creating the “building blocks of democracy”. That fact that he was accompanied by a delegation of arms and aerospace contractors was, on the one hand, a public relations disaster, but on the other, laid bare the unadulterated hypocrisy of protestations of support for the Egyptian people’s democracy. How many of Mubarak’s tear gas canisters had ‘Made in England’ written on them?
Hypocrisy reaches epic proportions in the context of Libya. Gadaffi goes from evil dictator to internationally rehabilitated moderate, back to brutish despot, depending how Western governments determine his political usefulness. Since the start of the revolt in Libya there has been almost total condemnation of Gadaffi, which may be totally justified in and of itself, but coming from Western leaders it is fundamentally duplicitous and shows a convenient loss of collective memory. Gadaffi’s promise to stop supporting terrorism and suspend nuclear weapons programs led to a phalanx of Western leaders (a grinning Tony Blair included) parading themselves with the redeemed Libyan leader in front of his tented village. This was defined as victory against terrorism and a triumph of diplomacy yet in the background, again, was a range of arms deals and oil contracts. The complexity of Britain’s ties to Libya also incorporates the decision to release Lockerbie bomber Mohmed Ali al-Megrahi, and continues to be revealed through details about a nepotistic relationship with the London School of Economics.
All this without even mentioning the West’s association with Saudi Arabia.
Back home, in the midst of the financial crisis, hypocrisy has Premier League credentials, perhaps summed up by the mantra “we’re all in this together”. This phrase has been preprogrammed as the default response of every coalition MP and, by and large, it seems to have been swallowed. It seems that not only every politician but every media commentator, economist, corporate CEO, indeed anyone with a public voice accepts this dictum as fact. The tokenistic attempts at financial regulation set out by George Osbourne are wrapped around the rhetoric of fairness. However, at the same time the boss of RBS takes home a £6 million bonus for presiding over a £1 billion pound loss in an institution that the taxpayer had to bail out and now owns. Juxtaposed next to the massive cuts in front line services across the board, clearly, we are not all in this together. The possibility of simply taxing corporations and the rich more is never even mooted. “Common sense” economic maxims are masking real ideological manipulation here. “We’re all in this together” is classic Orwellian doublespeak.
Yes there are uprisings of dissent over the cuts but it seems that the level of anger over what the public is told it now has to deal with is, in actuality, quite paltry. The philosophy of hypocrisy, it seems, is working well. Egyptians and Libyans (along with other North African and Middle Eastern peoples) are fighting and dying for the possibility of a democratic voice. We supposedly have that voice, but maybe we need some advice from them in how to use it.