A kick in the NADS for democracy
Meet the all-party Western lobby to halt the Egyptian uprising: the New Authoritarian Democrats.
‘Nads – testicles, gonads, balls, bollocks.’ (Urban Dictionary)
The Egyptian uprising is not only forging fresh political alliances in Cairo – it has also cohered a cross-party grouping at the heart of British, US and EU politics: the New Authoritarian Democrats, or NADS.
For years these statesmen, politicians and commentators have piously lectured the people of the developing world about the need to adopt Western-style democracy. Many of them supported and sought to justify the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq by claiming they were fighting for democracy for those on the receiving end.
Yet when the people of Egypt rose up for democratic change, the Western NADS panicked. The prospect of a changing world where the masses could take matters into their own hands terrifies these onlookers far more than a familiar old dictator like Egypt’s President Mubarak. Thus from the White House and Whitehall downwards, many started urging caution on the Egyptians, calling for an ‘orderly transition’. Others went further in spelling out their fears, warning that Egypt is not suited to Western-style democracy after all, and that extremists such as the Muslim Brotherhood could exploit public anger to seize power. Some have even dared to confess the deep inner thoughts of the NADS: that they believe a Mubarak-style strongman is actually better than mass rule, and that perhaps a crackdown on the protesters would not be the worst thing if it could ensure the stability the West craves.
Thus was the influential NADS lobby formed over Egypt, democrats in words yet authoritarians in deed. The cri de coeur of NADS everywhere is ‘I’m a democrat, but….’ They are effectively saying ’…but we didn’t mean that sort of democracy!’ When it was reported that Mubarak was prepared to leave office but feared that ‘chaos’ would follow if he went too soon, he was widely ridiculed. Yet was his message so different from that of the great and good in the West?
The ruling authorities in an old imperialist state such as Britain have long exhibited a conditional attitude to democracy and the ceding of political power. At home, they restricted the franchise to property-owning men until the right to vote was wrenched from them by the people. In the colonies, they rejected any suggestion that the peoples of Africa or Asia might be fit to vote or to govern themselves, believing, as Cecil Rhodes stated in 1887, that ‘the native is to be treated as a child and denied the franchise’. In the decades that followed, the ‘natives’ of the British and other Western colonies such as Egypt forcefully expressed their disagreement with that outlook and won the democratic right to national self-determination.
In more recent times, the Western authorities have become loud advocates of democratisation around the world, using democracy as a stick with which to beat the Soviet Union and its allies during the Cold War (while quietly supporting their own mock-democratic tyrants in Africa or the Middle East). Twenty years ago, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet bloc were hailed as the triumph of Western democracy. In the past few years, Western statesmen and observers have hailed the placid media-led ‘revolutions’ in places such as Ukraine or Georgia. Yet when the Egyptians take to the streets and threaten a real democratic revolution that could change not just the face at the top but the entire political order, the phoney Western democrats of the NADS recoil in horror.
What is striking this time around is that not only the imperialist heirs of Rhodes, but also many allegedly liberal politicians, campaigners and intellectuals are now coming out as NADS. Their talk of a possible Islamist takeover only expresses a far deeper loathing and mistrust of the ignorant masses, at home as much as abroad. It seems as if these illiberal liberals would far rather see the world run by unelected but ‘enlightened’ Western NGOs than risk the unpredictable results of people power.
Of course, few would wish explicitly to denounce democracy. But the message from those on the ‘left’ wing of the NADS lobby has been that immature Egypt is not fit for the sort of democracy the West takes for granted, and instead the children need more help from their international elders and betters to grow up. So we marvel as Baroness Ashton, who, as a Labour peer and the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs, has risen to power without the inconvenience of having to stand for an election, feels at liberty to lecture the Egyptians about how their new democracy will be too ‘shallow’ unless it is underpinned by bureaucrats – aka viceroys – such as her. And we can only watch in admiration as others, such as one Northern Ireland-based NGO, bluntly announce that ‘Western democracy doesn’t suit Egypt’.
There was a remarkable exchange on Egypt last week on the Moral Maze, BBC Radio 4’s longstanding ethical debate programme. One guest, David Cesarani, is a liberal professor of history specialising in the Nazi Holocaust, and a member of the UK government’s Holocaust Memorial Day strategic group. Asked about the ‘moral dilemma’ of what to do if one feared that the government that replaced Mubarak as a result of the mass protests would be worse than the dictator, Professor Cesarani suggested that if one were to take the ‘wholly pragmatic view’, then ‘the outcome of a Tiananmen Square-style crackdown is desirable and is predictable’. After all, ‘if you allow this popular democratic movement to run on unchecked, you cannot predict what’s going to happen. But you can predict probably that after a short, sharp, massive clampdown at huge human cost, there will be a sullen stability.’ One of the panellists, Matthew Taylor, former adviser to Tony Blair and now chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts, called Cesarani’s comments ‘incredibly brave’ and said, ‘In a way, I can see his argument’.
What was remarkable was not only that this sober discussion of the possible merits of a ‘Tiananmen Square-style crackdown’ in Egypt took place in the moral heart of the liberal BBC, but that it attracted so little comment, apart from a few critics led by spiked’s own Brendan O’Neill. Perhaps because they were only saying out loud on Radio 4 what many more NADS have been thinking and discussing in private.
The NADS argue that if the pro-democracy movement goes ‘too far’ the Muslim Brotherhood will take advantage. Some of us see the real danger as the opposite: that the revolt will not go far enough, and a compromise deal – already being discussed by the regime and self-appointed opposition leaders, including the Brotherhood – will be stitched up to leave much of the old order intact.
A potential democratic revolution is not a polite affair. The masses struggling for power is a messy business, the outcome of which cannot be precisely predicted – or controlled from without. But that does not make it any less democratic. The rise of our New Authoritarian Democrats reveals, however, that for many ‘democracy’ remains whatever the Western elites define it as, just as it was in Rhodes’ day. Thus the risen people can have whatever they want, except the power to shape their own destinies. As the emerging movement for democracy in the Middle East is met by the international movement to hold it back, the message from the NADS is: ‘Do as we say, not as we do.’ To which the democratic response is surely: ‘bollocks’.
Mick Hume is editor at large of spiked.
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