Magazine | February 21, 2011, Issue

The Fear of Worse

Comparing French and American responses to the Middle East upheavals

One of the problems with history is that it is lived forwards but written backwards. Those who are called upon to make it do not have the advantage of knowing how things will turn out; the precise moment at which democracies should ditch their dictatorial allies in favor of their opponents is therefore difficult to gauge. Treachery is an art that requires subtle judgment in its exercise.

When civil unrest breaks out in a dictatorship, how does one know whether it is a revolt or a revolution? One does not wish to be made to look naïve or foolish by supporting a rabble prematurely, just before it is squashed by the power; on the other hand, one does not want to appear to have supported a despot past his deposition date. It is all very perplexing.

When the protests began in Tunisia, the French, who supposedly carry much influence there, were caught by surprise. The trouble was that they were quite content with the status quo, and could not imagine that others were not. The dictator, Ben Ali, and the French president of the day (first Mitterrand, then Chirac, and last Sarkozy) had been photographed like lovebirds in a cage, nestling up to each other not only metaphorically but sometimes even physically. Relations could not have been better, or perhaps I should say more convenient.

We are inclined to defend comfort more fiercely than liberty, especially when the comfort is our own and the liberty is someone else’s. We search our capacious minds for justifications for our attitude, and if we have been sufficiently well, or at least lengthily, educated, we can generally find them. Thus, only days before the overthrow of Ben Ali, the French minister of culture and communication, Frédéric Mitterrand (the former president’s nephew, the former president himself  having been no slouch when it came to moral equivocation), said in an interview on television that “to call Tunisia a dictatorship is an exaggeration”: that is to say, worse could be found in the history of the world, the position of women was better than anywhere else in the region (what might be called the “Soviet women drive tractors” argument), etc. And had not a French president himself said that, in Tunisia, the most basic of human rights, that to nourishment and a roof over one’s head, had been met, and moreover progress towards freedom was continuing?

Likewise only days before Ben Ali’s overthrow, the French foreign minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, offered Tunisia French expertise in the quelling of riots, which, she said, was world-renowned. The French knew all about dealing with la racaille (the riffraff), as M. Sarkozy so tactfully called them back in 2005; and, indeed, it must be admitted that the mode of dress of the Tunisian populace made it difficult for superficial observers to distinguish them from les beurs of the Parisian banlieue.

Of course, when it was clear that the whole business was not a little local difficulty, the Tunisian army refusing to fire upon the mob, but a revolution, the tone changed. Suddenly it was discovered just how oppressive and corrupt the 23 years of Ben Ali’s rule had been, and how desirable the installation of democracy would be. Then, when Ben Ali was told it might be wise to depart, the French announced that the presence of the erstwhile presidential lovebird on French territory (unlike that of his money hitherto) would not be welcome. The most secular of Arab leaders took flight for Saudi Arabia, while the leader of the Tunisian Islamist party, Rachid Ghannouchi, prepared his return to Tunis from London, where he had lived for 22 years (Islamists turn to Mecca to pray but to London for exile; I think it must be the variety of restaurants). At least the episode illustrated the truth of the one great law of political science, that in politics there are no friends, only interests; the treatment of Ben Ali by France brought to mind that of the late shah by the United States.

#page#When, as widely predicted, the troubles spread to Egypt, the American government found itself in the same position as the French, with the same dilemma. Would the government fall? Even the experts could not predict the future. Roger Hardy, a Middle East analyst at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, wrote on the BBC’s website on January 28 that it was not certain that it would. If a man who had devoted his whole life to the study of the region did not know, how could general politicians, with so many other things on their minds, be expected to know? Equivocation was therefore the safest, most sensible bet, and the administration’s first policy, before eventually asking Mubarak to step down.

Indeed, the administration found its Frédéric Mitterrand in Vice President Biden. In his opinion Mubarak was not a dictator, properly so called; what he was, he did not specify. In immortal words that bring to mind (by means of contrast) the Gettysburg Address, he called on “President Mubarak to begin to move in the direction of being more responsive to some of the needs of the people out there.” The French said the same to Ben Ali, though rather more elegantly.

Of course, Egypt is much more important than Tunisia on the world scale of things; the stakes are much higher and the dangers accordingly greater. If the Islamists were to reach power, conflagration in the whole region might be expected. Should America, therefore, act on the great political principle enunciated in one of Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Verses? The poem tells the story of Jim, who is taken to the zoo and runs into the jaws of a lion, who eats him. The moral is that one should “always keep ahold of nurse / For fear of finding something worse.”

This has been the tried and trusted American policy in the Middle East zoo for many years, and it must be admitted that, until now, it has worked well enough for both sides. Mubarak played for decades on American fears of something worse than himself, doing all that he could to make those fears plausible: so plausible, in fact, that they paralyzed Americans when his downfall became inevitable.

But the fact that Mubarak manipulated American fears does not mean that they were or are totally without foundation. The choice in politics is rarely between the good and the bad; it is more often between the bad and the appalling, especially where long-term dictators, friendly to American or other Western interests, might be replaced by revolutionary regimes; and there is plenty of scope for the appalling in Egypt. A change of rulers might be the joy of fools, as the Romanian saying has it, but it is also, often enough, the despair of policymakers.

When Mr. Mubarak goes, Western governments must hope that while everything changes, nothing much will change, above all in Egypt’s foreign policy. The prospects for, say, a Scandinavian-style democracy, with transparent government, absence of corruption, universal tolerance, and so forth, are not very strong; so perhaps something rather resembling Mubarakism without Mubarak, watered down and with fewer unpleasant characteristics, would be the best outcome. Thirty years, after all, is a long time in politics, and that is how long Mubarak — known in France as la vache qui rit, the laughing cow, on account of his uncanny resemblance to the trademark of a popular brand of crème de gruyère — lasted and kept the peace.

While Western chancelleries fret as to what they should do, they might reflect on the consoling fact of their impotence. It is one of the great illusions of power that it is possible to mold people and events entirely according to one’s wishes. One can influence them all right, but seldom precisely in the direction that one wants; as for American aid to Egypt, it is a very blunt instrument that can be used only infrequently. And where there is little power, there is little responsibility. Prevarication is sometimes to politics what masterly inactivity once was to medicine.

Poor Mr. Mubarak! He will not be welcome on United States territory for fear of offending his successors. He might very well end up in the Hotel Ben Ali, that is to say Saudi Arabia: no doubt a fitting end to his long career.

– Mr. Daniels is the author of Utopias Elsewhere and other books.

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