THE POLITICAL SITUATION IN EGYPT – 29 January 2014

Dr Julian Lewis: The speeches in this debate so far have been measured, temperate and realistic –

Jeremy Corbyn: Until now!

Dr Julian Lewis: I pay tribute to both previous speakers and, despite the friendly sedentary intervention of my friend, the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), I intend to follow in their footsteps. I congratulate in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) on introducing such an important subject. I am pleased that people have not gone automatically into a mode of suggesting that all the good is on one side and all the evil on the other. In Egypt, we are confronted with a choice of which is the lesser evil. I agree with the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Iain McKenzie) that the correct course to follow is not to rush to endorse what has happened in Egypt. We should ensure that we maintain pressure on whatever Administration or regime emerges to follow a path back to constitutional democracy at the earliest opportunity.

It sometimes bothers me that people think that when a dramatic development occurs, it is automatically to be interpreted in the context of what we have experienced in recent European history. I felt the very coinage of the term 'Arab Spring' to be inappropriate. I did not feel that the spate of revolutions that took place in one Middle Eastern country after another should be compared to the attempt by Central and Eastern European countries, which had been well set on the path to constitutional democracy before they were hijacked by the Soviet empire, to go back to the democratic path. There was no direct comparison between those European countries asserting their right to return to democracy and what was happening in at least some of the Middle Eastern countries.

In 1941, Churchill was famously teased by one of his left-wing opponents when he spoke up for Russia after it was invaded by the Nazis. After all, Churchill was the architect of British intervention in the Russian Civil War, and he famously wanted to 'strangle Bolshevism at birth'. He had the right answer to his critic: he said that if Hitler invaded Hell, he would at least have a good word to say for the Devil in the House of Commons. In other words, he recognised that it was a choice between evils.

It is often thought that when a totalitarian regime emerges, based on a totalitarian ideology, it does so in a coup, with no popular support at all. That is not necessarily the case; in fact, I would say that it is not usually the case. There was certainly popular support for the Nazis, as well as for the Communists in many cases where they succeeded in coming to power. The paradox in trying to deal with such situations was that there was a degree of democratic legitimacy to the initial taking over of the country, but once that had happened, the regimes proceeded to dismantle the very framework of democracy – however great or limited it was at the time – that had enabled them to come to power on the basis of some form of popular support. Such popular support was often allied to a specific type of devious perversion of political language when the regime was consolidating its grip on power.

The question that must be faced by democracies looking on as such situations develop is what we do when a group of people come to power, initially with a greater or lesser degree of democratic legitimacy, and proceed to subvert the system so that they will never again have to submit themselves to democratic elections. I suggest that what was happening in Egypt was a movement in that sort of direction. The country was faced with the choice of whether it wished to see Islamism take control, as it has done following what I prefer to call the Arab uprisings, to the disappointment of many of us who were hoping to see constitutional democracies emerge in other Middle Eastern countries. The issue is what we do about that. Do we simply rush to condemn the fact that Islamists have been ejected from power in Egypt, or do we recognise the real difficulty of the choice that Egyptians have had to make between one extreme situation and another?

Kwasi Kwarteng: The situation in Egypt was even more extreme than that, in terms of the groundwork laid for political Islam. In the parliamentary elections, 50% of the seats were won by the Muslim Brotherhood and 25% by Salafis, so 75% of the seats were won by parties that openly supported political Islam. There was no room for an alternative in that system.

Dr Lewis: That is absolutely correct. My hon. Friend will put me right if I am mistaken, but I recall that part of the deal at the outset was that the Muslim Brotherhood undertook not to run for the Presidency – I think that I am right in saying that. That promise was very promptly broken.

In my time trying to comment as best I can on defence and security-related subjects in Parliament, not too many months – certainly not too many years – go by when I do not have recourse to mentioning one of my favourite political quotations from the late, great, Sir Karl Popper in his famous book, The Open Society and Its Enemies. I have quoted it before and I suspect that circumstances will require me to quote it again: the Paradox of Tolerance is that in a free society, people must tolerate all but the intolerant, because if you tolerate the intolerant, the conditions for toleration disappear and the tolerant go with them. I am sure that this is what the people who ousted the Islamists in Egypt would argue was their justification. Although I said earlier that one must not make simplistic comparisons, I am now probably about to do just that. Those people would probably point to the situation in Germany in the 1930s and say:

'Wouldn’t it have been better if the army had thrown the Nazis out, once it became clear that they were going to rip up the constitution and remove any chance of a democratic future, and when it saw what the Hitlerites were trying to do to the German system – which had more or less democratically elected them to power in the first place – using the techniques that we are so familiar with in totalitarian takeovers, to get an iron and irreversible grip on the society?'

How would we feel now if the army had stepped in then?

I worry when I hear people use phrases such as 'moderate Islamism'. The description of Islamism is the description of an extreme, intolerant ideology; there is no moderate Islamism, any more than there is moderate totalitarianism or moderate extremism. The reality is that there was a choice in Egypt between an Islamist takeover and the ejection of a group of people bent on destroying any sort of emergent democracy in that country and making a terrible mess of running it in the process.

Mr Gregory Campbell: While the hon. Gentleman is expanding on whether there can be moderate Islamism and the consequence of Islamism emerging in Egypt and other Middle Eastern nations, might I ask if he shares many people’s concern that religious minorities, including Christians and others, are being systematically purged, not just in thousands or tens of thousands, but in hundreds of thousands, from many nation states right across the Middle East?

Dr Lewis: I endorse that, and pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman and his party colleagues for raising this question more consistently and more often than any other group of hon. Members in the House. They are right to do so. We have to try to take a long view of the prospects for the re-emergence of some form of moderate government in Egypt. Those of us who have been in, and aware of, politics for a long time can remember the bad old days of Nasser. I am sure that some people would say, 'Ah, but those days are likely to come back,' but I remember that most sensible, pro-democratic people were relieved when Nasser’s successor, Sadat, showed himself willing to moderate the more extreme outlooks of Egyptian politics and to make peace with Israel.

I remember when Sadat was assassinated by what, today, we would call Islamists, how relieved we were that somebody else came forward who carried on his policies. Nevertheless, as is always the case when people come forward and get a grip, as Mubarak did, and do not want to give it up, corruption became rife and the situation ultimately became unstable. Of course, understandably, the people became fed up with him. However, although it took quite a while for the people to become fed up with that form of dictatorship, it did not take them terribly long to be fed up with President Morsi and his group.

Dr William McCrea: I appreciate the way that the hon. Gentleman is developing his argument. He is outlining the difficulties that we in the United Kingdom have in reacting to what is happening in Egypt, and the difficulties of choosing between two evils, as he termed it. Perhaps he will give us some specific steps that he believes the UK should take to stabilise the situation in Egypt.

Dr Lewis: I shall try to do so, although I am conscious that I am coming towards the end of my fair share of time. I shall try to make a remark or two along those lines at the end.

I do not hold myself out as being any form of expert on Middle Eastern politics, so I was pleased to see the comprehensive debate pack assembled for this occasion by Library researchers, who culled many good contributions from national and international media. I was struck particularly by the contribution of Dr Hazem Kandil, who is described as a Lecturer in Sociology and a Fellow of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, as well as being the author of a book entitled Inside the Brotherhood. He says:

'the Brotherhood’s opponents could not have fielded enough protesters to secure the cooperation of the high command had the common folk abstained. It was the Brotherhood’s shocking incompetence at government that drove millions into the streets on June 30. And it was the Brotherhood’s decision to turn a political clash into a religious war that guaranteed the public’s blanket endorsement for brutally repressing them. The Brothers were ousted not because of their political duplicity, but because they were so bad at it.'

In other words, the people saw through them. He continues:

'they were later hunted down because they never understood that their countrymen preferred to risk back-tracking into a functioning secular authoritarianism to the certainty of sliding into incompetent religious fascism.'

If I used those words, I might come in for some criticism, but when a knowledgeable Fellow of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, uses them, we all ought to take them seriously.

In response to the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea), I simply say that we should have a policy of positive critical engagement with whatever Government emerges. We should recognise that the Government who propose to emerge are at least talking the language of democracy, and can be held to that agenda, in a way that the Islamists do not.

My last observation is this. A few days ago, I was listening to the 'Today' programme and a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood was asked a simple question by the interviewer: 'Will you take part in the forthcoming elections or not?' He could have had plenty of good reasons for saying, 'We won’t do it'. He could have said, 'We don’t think they’ll be fair,' or 'We don’t think we’ll be allowed to campaign freely,' and so on. The fact was that it took the entire interview, with that question being asked over and over, to get any sort of final admission from this man that, no, it does not propose to take part. That reminded me of nothing so much as old debates with Marxists, 25 or 30 years ago: they never gave a straight answer to a straight question, because they were subject to a devious political ideology and had the language to match.

These people are not democrats. They were about to subvert democracy. The people who have ousted them may not be democrats, but we at least have a chance of making them work towards democracy in a way that the Muslim Brotherhood would never have wanted to do.