The Egypt protests have exposed the hypocrisy of mealy-mouthed Western commentators

Brendan O’Neill – February 4, 2011

The last time I was on the Moral Maze I was hauled over the coals for saying that political violence – as part of a radical protest, say – is sometimes justifiable. Yet on this week’s Moral Maze, some of the guests had a calm, polite discussion about the possibility of enacting a far more massive form of political violence against the freedom-hungry people of Egypt. One of the guests, Professor David Cesarani, floated the idea of there being a Tiananmen Square-style massacre in Egypt as a way of quelling potential post-Mubarak anarchy. And there has been no outrage. No Twitterstorm, no blog-based apoplexy, no heated radio phone-ins. Perhaps talking about the massacre of Egyptians is normal these days.

Professor Cesarani was asked by Michael Portillo about the “moral dilemma” of how to deal with what comes after Mubarak. What if it’s worse than Mubarak? Should it be crushed? Professor Cesarani said that if one takes the “wholly pragmatic view”, then “the outcome of a Tiananmen Square-style crackdown is desirable and is predictable”. Because, he said, “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.”

Portillo was startled. “Quite a lot of people would be quite shocked to hear what you said – that a Tiananmen-style outcome would be desirable.” Cesarani responded that “the West is no longer weeping that much over Tiananmen Square because we’re doing a lot of business with China. So, many business interests would say, quietly, that, perhaps, well the way in which the Chinese managed their transition was preferable.” Another panellist, Matthew Taylor, former adviser to Tony Blair and now chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts, later described Cesarani’s comments on Tiananmen Square as “incredibly brave” and said: “In a way, I can see his argument.”

There you have it. Faced with a mass uprising for democracy in the Middle East, the instinctive reaction of some sections of polite society in Britain is to panic, to fret about anarchy, about “another Iran”, and to hint that maybe a violent crackdown will be required. Variations on this theme have appeared across the sphere of political commentary, including amongst those who supported the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan on the (entirely mad) basis that these invasions would “deliver democracy” to the Middle East and Central Asia. Now that real people in the Middle East are agitating for democracy, and might actually win it, suddenly “democracy” has become a dirty word. It’s too “unchecked”, too unpredictable, too chaotic, and not such a good idea for those strange brown people after all. Maybe a strongman will have to intervene and impose order.

This is one of the brilliant things about the inspiring uprising in Egypt: it has not only exposed the illegitimacy of the Mubarak regime, but also the BS behind recent Western campaigns to “deliver democracy” to the Middle East. Because the very same politicians and commentators who talked about “democratising” Iraq now stare in horror, mouths agape, at the Egyptian masses demanding their democratic rights. That’s because these fear-wracked observers don’t understand what real democracy is. And when they see it, in all its noisiness and rowdiness and unpredictability, it terrifies them.


David Cesarani is professor of history at Royal Holloway, University of London, England. He advised the British government office responsible for “Holocaust” memorial day and was a member of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office delegation to the Intergovernmental Taskforce for “International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research.” He is the editor of The Final Solution: Origins and Implementation (1994) and Bystanders to the Holocaust: A Re-evaluation (2002) and the author of Justice Delayed: How Britain Became a Refuge for Nazi War Criminals (1992).