Blair in Spotlight Urging for 'Plan' for Arab Spring

Amy Woods, 12 June 2011

Categories: BBC News | Democracy | Arab Spring | Libya | Middle East | Tony Blair |

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In the new introduction to his autobiography, Tony Blair urges that Europe and the United States need a plan to “support” the Arab Spring, with further military action as required.

Blair has been receiving a warm reception on his current promotional interview trail. While the public have made book-signings too difficult, the media are happy to give undivided attention to Blair’s publicity campaign with appearances on BBC Breakfast, the Today programme, Radio 5 Live, Sky News, and wide newspaper coverage. Beginning Thursday morning on BBC Breakfast, Blair was introduced by Bill Turnbull who described him as the man with the "enormous task" of "making peace in the Middle East". A more accurate introduction, actually taking Blair’s track record into account, might have described him as the man responsible for making war in Iraq and Afghanistan, who offered the "hand of friendship" to Muammar Gaddafi and holidayed courtesy of Hosni Mubarak. These things are easy to forget it seems. Currently Blair’s plan for peace-keeping includes refusing to rule out putting "boots on the ground" in Libya and Syria.

In his book Blair claims “we have major interests engaged in the region. We have no real option but to be active.” Interviewed by Sarah Montague on the Today programme, Blair urged that "we have to be players in this". Reading, not too strenuously, between the lines, the subtext of this statement is: "what can we get out of this?" Blair’s position is quite direct in underlining the self-interest of Britain’s foreign interventions, despite the humanitarian rhetoric provided by the government for public consumption.

Writing on Blair’s series of interviews, the Independent’s John Rentoul muses, “It was a delight, of course, to hear his light voice again on all available channels, showing how it is done”. And on Blair’s position on the Middle East and North Africa, Rentoul comments: “it makes as much sense as anyone else's take” – particularly when it is allowed to go unchallenged by writers and broadcasters. “How we have missed such class” since Blair left his role as PM. I wonder who Rentoul thinks he’s speaking for. Many people don’t see Blair as a rock star. They see him as a war criminal. In terms of reality, Rentoul offers merely that “there is also a danger that the sinister elements of his Manichean world view will take advantage of disorder”. Taking advantage of disorder is precisely what Blair is advocating.

During his Radio 4 interview he called for "a plan for change that is as much economic and social as it is political" - one that no doubt benefits Western corporations and business interests. In all of this media coverage, where are the challenges to Blair’s position? An obvious issue is Blair’s assumption that Europe and the US have the right to decide a role for themselves in the political processes of other countries.

Blair writes in his new introduction: “democracy is not just about the right to vote a government in and out. It only works if a whole array of other freedoms come with freedom to vote: the rule of law, properly and impartially administered; freedom of expression; free markets; and freedom of religion.” One might ask how Blair could argue that free markets are essential to a functioning democracy. They certainly didn’t help establish democracy or civil liberties under the military dictatorship of neoliberal Pinochet in Chile or in Russia under Boris Yeltsin.

Within the institutions and governments of the West, there is a strong push for economic reform, with the head of the World Bank, Bob Zoellick, even attempting to link the cause of the Arab uprisings to "red tape". In addition to the military intervention in Libya, the G8 has promised $20bn in aid to Egypt and Tunisia in order to "support Arab spring goals". Handing aid and loans to unelected interim governments does not directly support the goals of the people and we must be wary of the implicit strings attached when funds are given through the institutions of the IMF and the World Bank which have a habit of moving swiftly in while countries are in stages of political instability and forcing through undemocratic economic reforms.

As Larbi Sadiki writes for Al-Jazeera, "Aid, including that given to non-governmental organisations, must not limit the choice of recipients when it comes to choosing a developmental path. It must not be subject to the values and interests of the donors whose free market economies, in this instance, are very difficult to replicate in an Arab world".

Blair’s advocation of free market democracy is at odds with the very nature of the uprisings. Mubarak's Egypt was, as Walter Armbrust argues, "a quintessential neoliberal state", and the system of neoliberalism itself is very much what people are rising up against.

What is important for the region is the establishment of social justice. The people's demands for democracy and the ability to self-govern must not be subverted by western powers or institutions. Economic links with other countries must be established in accordance with the wishes of the people. Arab nations can engage with the rest of the world without succumbing to neoliberal economic paradigms if they so wish.

It is important to be aware that our western governments are no more on the side of democracy now than when they were steadfastly supporting the Arab dictators. We must judge them on their actions, rather than their rhetoric about democracy and human rights. We should not forget that Britain's relationship with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain has not changed despite recent events. On 20th May, David Cameron welcomed Bahrain's Crown Prince, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa to Downing Street as Bahraini protesters endured another day of violent repression

The opportunistic attempts of Western governments to influence the outcomes of the Arab Spring for their own gain must be resisted. We must not allow our politicians, be they Blair, Cameron, Sarkozy or Obama to undermine the Arab Spring in the name of Western interests.

Categories in which this article appears: BBC News | Democracy | Arab Spring | Libya | Middle East | Tony Blair |

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