IF THE Sphinx is looking even more inscrutable than usual these days it is probably– like most western politicians – to mask its bafflement over current events in Egypt.
After last week’s lethal clashes, beginning at a football match, conspiracy theories have proliferated to the point that investigating them is like peeling an onion. What is most to be feared is the classic formula for historical disasters: several conflicting and ill-controlled conspiracies producing an unintended combustion.
Anybody who imagines the murderous fighting in Port Said last week between supporters of premier league rivals Al-Masry and Al-Ahly was the equivalent of an Old Firm confrontation turned feral is sadly mistaken. The motivation was unmistakably political. The Al-Ahly Ultras, the hardcore fans of the Cairo team, were prominent in last year’s revolution against Hosni Mubarak; now they are claiming that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) took revenge against them, both for their previous revolutionary activities and for their orchestrated chants demanding an end to military rule at their team’s previous fixture.
That is not inherently implausible: the thesis that the military is anxious to destabilise Egypt to justify its own retention of power is a credible hypothesis, but it also exhibits certain contradictions. The complaint that the police deliberately neglected to search fans for weapons as they entered the stadium, thus facilitating a massacre, implicitly concedes the culpability of the fans themselves, albeit Al-Masry supporters rather than Al-Ahly. The charge that the ineffectuality of the police in suppressing the disturbance was deliberate under-rates the likelihood of sheer incompetence – as demonstrated nearer home by the failure of the British police to control last summer’s riots.
Scaf would be playing a very dangerous game by provoking violence on the streets. There is no guarantee that, if it escalated, the armed forces would be able to contain it or that the rank and file would remain obedient to their superiors. The Egyptian army looks solid enough – but so did the Syrian army not so long ago. Groups of supporters such as the “Ultras” associated with Al-Ahly are at least as much political as sporting organisations. There is a parallel with the former Yugoslavia where similar groups connected with football teams metamorphosed into military units when the civil war erupted.
There is an alternative conspiracy theory entertained by more thoughtful Egyptians: that the social disorder is being covertly promoted by the Muslim Brotherhood to force the army to step down and surrender power to parliament. In the post-revolution elections, in which more than 30 million Egyptians voted, the Brotherhood and other Islamist parties won 77 per cent of the seats in the Majlis; the secular liberals, in whom deluded western politicians reposed their hopes, secured 15 per cent. Informed predictions that this would happen were hooted down by the cognoscenti at the US State Department and BBC, among the Guardian readership and in the Westminster Bedlam.
The BBC has an inexhaustible supply of articulate, westernised, graduate professionals, frequently doctors, almost invariably women, endlessly interviewed to tell listeners what the Corporation thinks they ought to hear. As spokeswomen for their own societies, to which they have become alien, they are as representative as a panel-beater from Croydon.
The geopolitical decline of western – and particularly American – influence can be dated from the late 1970s when Jimmy Carter abandoned the cynical but reliable “our bastard” principle of realpolitik in favour of an “ethical” foreign policy and demonstrated his statesmanship by subverting the Shah of Iran. Enter the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the ultimate personification of the adage “Hold very tightly on to nurse…” Mind you, compared to the length of tapwater in the Oval Office now, Carter looks like Bismarck.
The West is wreaking much worse global havoc now in exporting democracy than in the days when it exported imperialism. Iraq is in anarchy; America is hastening its “accelerated withdrawal” from Afghanistan where preparations are openly in progress for the reinstatement of Taleban rule; there is renewed fighting in Libya. Yet still the West cannot wait to destabilise more governments – Syria is the current target. Western governments are behaving as red-top tabloids used to do: destroying governments – because we can. Who would ever have thought Russia would emerge as a moderating influence? The Muslim Brotherhood fathered al-Qaeda. Its rule in Egypt is now inevitable. Nice one, Barack and Dave. It is heart-warming to watch the onward march of democracy.