Some protests suit Blair more than others

Published in The Independent (July 9th, 2013)

There was always something Tiggerish about Tony Blair, with that irrepressible ability to overcome setbacks unabashed and bounce back unconstrained by previous pronouncements. But even allowing for this, it was utterly breathtaking to watch him tour television studios in support of the military coup in Egypt.

Blair is, after all, the person who always claimed to be a passionate democrat, the politician who helped define liberal interventionism, the prime minister who sent soldiers to fight for democracy and the charity chief who claims to promote good governance. Yet there he was telling the world that huge street protests meant the Egyptian army  was right to topple an elected government.

Lest anyone could forget, he was also the leader who defied the biggest street protests in British history to launch a dubious war on dodgy grounds with the most disastrous consequences. But that’s different, he says, since there were comparatively many more people on the streets of Egypt; presumably he has in his muddled head some kind of magic number that permits a military coup.

Perhaps we should not be surprised by this man who was always so casual about human rights. As prime minister, Blair took freebie holidays from former dictator Hosni Mubarak, then later hailed his embezzling old pal as “immensely courageous and a force for good” even as the blood of those demanding democracy flowed in Tahrir Square. Now he poses as a wise global elder, pontificating on religion and democracy.

In truth his political legacy, his confused outlook and his web of conflicting interests make him look more tarnished and irrelevant by the day. He must be relieved that broadcasters still give him slots to expound his anachronistic views, even if he is no longer prime-time. Our former prime minister has become the Middle East peace envoy who endorses military coups, dictatorships, foreign intervention and street protests to oust leaders. He also says he supports democracy, although seemingly only if the right people win and then act according to his approval.

Advisers told me that when Blair was in office, behind all those warm words about freedom and democracy was a devotion to the most merciless realpolitik, with ruthless focus on money and power. This led to incidents such as the shameful appeasement of the Saudi royal family by terminating the landmark BAE bribery case, which undermined both the integrity of British justice and the critical fight against corruption. And to that infamous deal in the desert with Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi that so prostituted British national interests.

Since leaving office, his tainted world view has become even more evident as he cuddles up to some of the world’s less lovely regimes. Even now he remains a loyal supporter of Paul Kagame in Rwanda, despite evidence of him stirring up trouble again in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo and sending hit squads to kill British citizens. But then, Blair happily hailed this despot’s “popular mandate” after a sham election that saw rivals jailed, dissidents shot and newspapers shut.

Now this man who props up dictators and takes fat cheques from autocrats seeks to place himself on the side of street protesters around the world, who demand dignity by seeking an end to corruption, more jobs and better public services. This attempt to align himself with what he calls their “free democratic spirit” is not just hypocritical; it is also rather risible, reminiscent of a straight-laced uncle trying to get down with the kids at a party.

Today he argues that “efficacy” is the challenge and stability the cause. Yet as we survey poor shattered Egypt, with another 51 people killed in what appears to have been an army massacre, it is surely hard even for Blair to see it as a more stable place than it was a week ago. Instead, the divisions that ripped apart the nation since the revolution have widened, the hostilities grown more intense, and any hopes of freedom and genuine democracy receded still further.

Mohamed Morsi, the deposed Muslim Brotherhood president, was a divisive, hapless and hopeless leader who devastated the causes of democracy and unity – although it is worth recalling he became Egypt’s first properly-elected leader with a higher share of the vote than Blair ever achieved in Britain. As many including myself predicted, the Brothers were being cruelly tested by power and Morsi’s partisan incompetence undermining the appeal of an organisation forced underground for so long.

Now the coup threatens to boost Islamic extremists in Egypt and sends a terrible message to Islamists worldwide, a signal accentuated by the subsequent crackdown on Morsi supporters and amplified by Blair’s naive endorsement. Increasingly the spectre of Algeria looms, when the army overturned an Islamist electoral victory in 1992 and sparked a long, savage civil war.

Democracy is, as Blair rightly said, about so much more than mere elections – although equally, stability at all costs is a discredited mantra that should be consigned to history as a disfiguring cover for corruption and barbarity. The military must not be given a blank cheque to behave as it sees fit, despite the deafening silence of many liberals. Yesterday Heba Morayef, the respected human rights campaigner, told me she fears her country may have moved past the point at which a political process remains possible.

It is all very well for Blair to behave like Tigger. Egypt, on the other hand, may find it rather harder to bounce back.

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