Western policy is at a crossroads: commentary or action; shaping events or reacting to them. After the long and painful campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, I understand every impulse to stay clear of the turmoil, to watch but not to intervene, to ratchet up language but not to engage in the hard, even harsh business of changing reality on the ground. But we have collectively to understand the consequences of wringing our hands instead of putting them to work.
People wince at the thought of intervention. But contemplate the future consequence of inaction and shudder: Syria mired in carnage between the brutality of Assad and various affiliates of al-Qaeda, a breeding ground of extremism infinitely more dangerous than Afghanistan in the 1990s; Egypt in chaos, with the West, however unfairly, looking as if it is giving succour to those who would turn it into a Sunni version of Iran. Iran still — despite its new president — a theocratic dictatorship, with a nuclear bomb. Our allies dismayed. Our enemies emboldened. Ourselves in confusion. This is a nightmare scenario but it is not far-fetched.
Let us start with Egypt. To many in the West, it is clear: the Egyptian military have aborted a democratically elected Government and are now repressing a legitimate political party, killing its supporters and imprisoning its leaders. So we are on a steady track to ostracising the new Government. In doing so, we think we’re upholding our values. I completely understand why this view would be taken. But it is a grave strategic error.
The fallacy with this approach lies in the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood. We think of it as a normal political party. It isn’t. If you want to join the UK Conservative Party or the German Christian Democrats or the US Democrats, you can do so with ease and they will welcome you with open arms. And in all these countries, the basic democratic freedoms are respected by all parties. The Muslim Brotherhood simply isn’t like that. To become a member even at the lowest level is a seven-year process of induction and indoctrination. It is run by a hierarchy that is more akin to the old Bolshevik party system.
This is a movement. Read their speeches — not the ones they put out for Western ears, but the ones they actually believe, for their own ears. What they were doing in Egypt was not “governing badly”. If you elect a bad government, then tough — you live with it. What they were doing was systematically changing the constitution, taking control of the commanding heights of the State in order to subvert them and to make it impossible for their rule to be challenged. And they were doing so in pursuit of values that contradict everything we stand for.
So you can rightly criticise actions or overreactions of the new military Government but it is quite hard to criticise the intervention that brought it into being. Now all the choices that Egypt faces are ugly. The bloodshed is horrible and will shock all Egyptians. There are large numbers of soldiers and police among the casualties as well as civilians and, partly as a by-product of the fall of Gaddafi, Egypt is awash with weapons. But simply condemning the military will not get us any nearer to a return to democracy.
Egypt is not a creation of 19th or 20th-century global power games. It is an ancient civilisation stretching back thousands of years and is imbued with a fierce national pride. The army has a special place in its society. The people do want democracy, but they will be disdainful of Western critics whom they will see as utterly naive in the face of the threat to democracy that the Muslim Brotherhood posed.
We should support the new Government in stabilising the country, urge everyone, including the Muslim Brotherhood, to get off the streets, and let a proper and short process to an election be put in place with independent observers. A new constitution should be drafted that protects minority rights and the basic ethos of the country, and all political parties should operate according to rules that ensure transparency and commitment to the democratic process.
This is the only realistic way to help those — and they’re probably a majority — who want genuine democracy, not an election as a route to domination.
In Syria, we know what is happening. We know it is wrong to let it happen. But leave aside any moral argument and just think of our interests for a moment. Syria, disintegrated, divided in blood, the nations around it destabilised, waves of terrorism rolling over the population of the region; Assad in power in the richest part of the country; Iran, with Russia’s support, ascendant; a bitter sectarian fury running the Syrian eastern hinterland — and us, apparently impotent. I hear people talking as if there was nothing we could do: the Syrian defence systems are too powerful, the issues too complex, and in any event, why take sides since they’re all as bad as each other?
But others are taking sides. They’re not terrified of the prospect of intervention. They’re intervening. To support an assault on civilians not seen since the dark days of Saddam.
It is time we took a side: the side of the people who want what we want; who see our societies for all their faults as something to admire; who know that they should not be faced with a choice between tyranny and theocracy. I detest the implicit notion behind so much of our commentary — that the Arabs or even worse, the people of Islam are unable to understand what a free society looks like, that they can’t be trusted with something so modern as a polity where religion is in its proper place. It isn’t true. What is true is that there is a life-and-death struggle going on about the future of Islam and the attempt by extreme ideologues to create a political Islam at odds both with the open-minded tradition of Islam and the modern world.
In this struggle, we should not be neutral. From the threat of the Iranian regime to the pulverising of Syria to the pains of the Egyptian revolution, from Libya to Tunisia, in Africa, Central Asia and the Far East, wherever this extremism is destroying the lives of innocent people, we should be at their side and on it.
I know as one of the architects of policy after 9/11 the controversy, anguish and cost of the decisions taken. I understand why, now, the pendulum has swung so heavily the other way. But it is not necessary to revert to that policy to make a difference. And the forces that made those interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan so difficult are of course the very forces at the heart of the storm today.
They have to be defeated. We should defeat them, however long it takes; because otherwise they will not disappear. They will grow stronger until, at a later time, there will be another crossroads and this time there will be no choice.
• Tony Blair was Prime Minister from 1997-2007 and is the special envoy for the Middle East Quartet