Who was the greatest champion of democracy in 2013? Unbelievably, the Muslim Brotherhood

Brendan O’Neill

Brendan O’Neill is editor of the online magazine spiked and is a columnist for the Big Issue in London and The Australian in, er, Australia. His satire on environmentalism, Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas, is published by Hodder & Stoughton. He doesn’t tweet

Looking back over 2013, what person or organisation has done the most to preserve the ideals of democracy and freedom? Who should win the prize for standing up for democratic rights in the face of autonomy-crushing authoritarianism? I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but I think it’s the Muslim Brotherhood, or at least its supporters in Egypt. More than any other group of people on Earth, the Egyptian masses who back the Muslim Brotherhood risked life and limb in 2013 to try to preserve the idea that the people should get to choose their political leaders and should be free to express their political views and anger in public. Where we liberals in the West merely write articles about the importance of democratic rights and freedom of speech, MB fans in Egypt have fought tooth-and-catapult for those things; they’ve even died for them, in their thousands

This is a weird thing to say, I know. The Muslim Brotherhood is no defender of true, meaningful democracy, far less individual and minority rights. In fact it’s a frequently intolerant outfit, harrying and sometimes persecuting those who don’t buy into its Islamist agenda. So how has it managed to look like a warrior for democracy this year? It’s our fault. It has been the stunning failure of Westerners who claim to love democracy to condemn the anti-Muslim Brotherhood coup in Egypt, to challenge the overthrow of MB-leaning President Mohamed Morsi and the new regime’s subsequent brutal repression of his supporters, which has granted the Muslim Brotherhood moral authority on all matters relating to democracy and freedom. We failed to put the case for democracy in Egypt, and so the Muslim Brotherhood did. We vacated the moral highground, the Muslim Brotherhood took our place

It’s six months since the Egyptian military deposed Morsi, and still there is a deafening silence from Western leaders and many liberal observers about this political quake, which in my view was the most shocking and brazen assault on democracy in the whole of 2013. In fact, the European Union seems to have a pretty good relationship with the unelected post-Morsi regime: this week it pumped 280 million Euros into the new Egypt, for government development projects. This follows a visit to Egypt by Baroness Catherine Ashton, the EU’s chief of foreign affairs, to see General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the head of the Egyptian armed forces who swept Morsi from power on 3 July. Baroness Ashton encouraged al-Sisi and his junta to start “a journey [towards] a stable, prosperous and democratic Egypt”, somewhat overlooking the fact that al-Sisi came to power precisely through overriding the democratic will of the people and removing from power their elected leader

Other Western leaders have also given the nod of approval to the post-Morsi dictators of Egypt. US Secretary of State John Kerry, who is clearly in want of a dictionary, claimed the military’s assumption of power was about “restoring democracy”. Tony Blair, who spent much of his 10 misery-inducing years in Downing Street pontificating about any foreign regime that didn’t respect democracy and human rights, has acted as the unofficial press officer for the new dictators of Egypt. He has praised the new regime for achieving some semblance of stability through taking “some very tough, even unpopular decisions”. What a hypocrite. He blustered against and bombed anti-democratic authoritarianism in Iraq, yet praises it in Egypt. Not a word that this man says about democracy can ever be taken seriously again. As for Western observers, too many have been silent about the events of the past six months, and some have even cheered them, on the basis that the coup stopped the advance of the Muslim Brotherhood

Let us briefly recap what has been done by this new regime in Egypt that is being fawned over or forgiven by the EU, the US, Blair and others in the West. On 3 July it swept aside a president who was elected, freely and fairly, by 52 per cent of voters. It imprisoned him and leading members of his cabinet. It revealed this week that it is charging him with “espionage”. It violently crushed anyone who protested against these actions, massacring thousands. It has banned its critics, even taking off air the “Egyptian Jon Stewart”, Bassem Youseef, after he made fun of General al-Sisi. It has closed down media outlets and arrested and even shot journalists critical of the regime. It has thoroughly criminalised protest: this month, 14 women and seven girls who took part in a pro-Morsi protest were sentenced to 11 years in jail. On appeal, their punishment was reduced to one-year suspended jail sentences. Still shocking. These women have notably not become a Pussy Riot-style cause célèbre among Western campaigners. No one wears T-shirts with their faces on them, no one tweets about their predicament

The failure of Western leaders and liberal activists to take a serious stand against such illiberalism, to challenge the destruction of democracy in Egypt, exposes the hollowness of their professed commitment to human rights. It is possibly liberals’ greatest own goal of the 21st century so far: in effectively shrugging their shoulders over what happened in Egypt in 2013, they have allowed the Muslim Brotherhood, of all people, to claim the mantle of global guardian of democracy and liberty. It’s not hard to see why Westerners have been cagey about siding with those fighting for their democratic rights in Egypt – it’s because they’re Islamists, and, understandably, many people don’t like Islamists. I certainly don’t. But that’s not the point. True democrats and liberals ought to be consistent, recognising that everyone – regardless of their political views – deserves the right to pick their leaders and to speak and protest. Following the events of 2013, the next time Obama or Blair or some Western intellectual condemns the illiberal, anti-democratic antics of a foreign regime, that foreign regime will be justified in laughing in their faces. You know what? I might just laugh with them


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