Egypt: How India should respond

An Egyptian Army soldier, (centre-left), joins in support with anti-government protesters at a demonstration in Tahrir Square in Cairo on Sunday.  

As a general rule, it is advisable in diplomacy to be cautious in responding to events in foreign countries, especially when they occur in faraway places about which we may not be fully in the picture or where we may not have too many interests. There are occasions, however, when too much caution would not be necessary and might not be helpful in safeguarding and furthering our current and future interests. Silence might indicate not just caution but lack of clarity in our thinking. The evolving situation in Egypt is one such occasion. We ought to have expressed sympathy and support for the people of Egypt in what is undoubtedly their great moment in history.

It has been obvious, certainly from the second day of the protests in Egypt, that this was a genuinely people's movement, not engineered by external elements such as the Al Qaeda, nor by the Muslim Brotherhood, let alone any foreign government. It has also been clear that as and when the revolution reaches its denouement, President Mubarak, if he manages to survive in office, will no longer be able to continue to exercise unfettered power, as he has done for 30 years, that the people will have to be empowered in some way and that it would simply not be possible to restore the status quo ante in the political governance of the country. While the ‘jasmine' revolution in Tunisia might have provided the immediate spark, the spontaneity and scale of protests suggest that the Egyptian people have been nursing their grievances and rage for a long time. People from all strata of society, rich and poor, young and old, have been on the streets, demanding reforms and ouster of Mr. Mubarak. Modern means of communication such as facebook, internet and twitter have greatly facilitated the launching and sustaining of the revolution.

India is not, and must not be, in the business of promoting democracy abroad, either by itself or in association with anyone else. We have rightly taken the position that it is not up to us to tell others what type of government they should have; we will deal with whichever government is in power and is able to take decisions on behalf of their people, decisions that the government concerned is able to implement. This does not mean, when genuine democratic impulses propel a people to take to the streets in a peaceful manner that we should not respond to them positively. There would be absolutely no risk in doing so, especially if our assessment suggests, as it ought to have in this case, that there was no question of things going back to what they were earlier and that in the end, Egypt will end up having more democracy.

India is and must remain a strong votary of the principle of non-interference and non-intervention. Expression of support for the demonstrators will not amount to interference in Egypt's internal affairs. In any case, the principle of non-interference has to be superseded by the principle of national interest. It is obviously in our interest to be on the right side of the new forces that will emerge to prominence in Egypt when all this is over. They will remember who supported them in their hour of history and who sat on the fence. This is a good example of a situation when principle and national interest coincide.

Why should we be ‘concerned' at what is happening in Egypt? How should it bother us if the people of Egypt want democracy? Are we worried that Muslim Brotherhood will come to power? Even if that were to happen, why should that frighten us in India? Firstly, there is no evidence to suggest that the Brotherhood is behind the protests in the sense of having instigated them. They have been, on available information, cautioning the demonstrators not to indulge in violence. Since the protesters do not appear to have organised leadership, the Brotherhood, with its cadres and well-established cells, will certainly try to fill the vacuum and assume leadership role. However, most analysts, who have a better grasp of the internal situation in Egypt that this writer, suggest that the Brotherhood's support base is not as large as it would like to claim. The Brotherhood has declared itself as being opposed to violence, though it is true that it is an Islamist movement. But is it any more Islamist than the regimes in some countries which have been the source of most of the funding of institutions abroad that have been the single most important breeding ground of extremists? It is not an extremist movement and has many intellectuals and professional among its ranks. In any case, we with our firmly entrenched tradition of democracy, have nothing to fear from such a development. At least we Indians must not make the mistake of shunning whatever government comes to power in Cairo through a peaceful, democratic process. Governments around the world will have to deal with it since it is not Gaza strip that can be ignored.

Hamas won in a free and fair election which was monitored by the international community but was denied legitimacy and was ostracised by the world under pressure from the Americans and Israel. The result was that Hamas, a 100 per cent Sunni movement, was pushed in the embrace of a motivated Shia Iran. It was also not wise to shun the Hizbulla in Lebanon which has now the prime ministership of that country. (When this writer had gone to Beirut after the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, he had on his own initiative met Sheikh Hassan Nasrulla; the Israeli embassy in Delhi had protested, but happily the then secretary in MEA, Rajiv Sikri, had dismissed the protest.) Is there any doubt in the minds of our officials that the Americans have their lines of communication with both the Hamas and the Hizbulla (as well as with Iran)?

Egypt is one of the most important Arab countries. Its influence in the region is because of what it is and will not diminish if there is a change of government in Cairo. It is very likely that the emergence of a new dispensation will have at least short term consequences for the peace process between Israel and Palestine. It will be certainly be more representative of the true feelings of the Egyptian people and more supportive of the Palestinian aspirations. In any case, the peace process has long been dead and will not revive until Mr. Obama's second term.

It is natural for us to be concerned about the safety of our nationals in Egypt. But there is no reason to believe that the demonstrators will specifically target the Indians, unless the protesters come to the conclusion that India's government is silently supporting Mr. Mubarak. An expression of support for the people is likely to be remembered by them positively, just as we did when some governments came out on the side of the freedom movement in Bangladesh in 1971-72.

Muhammad Baradai, who seems to be positioning himself as a consensus candidate for presidency, does have some credibility, since he returned to his country to lead a reform movement long before the present unrest exploded. However, responsible Egyptian sources suggest that Mr. Baradai cannot be the answer to the present turmoil, which is likely to continue for some time. General Omar Soleiman, whom this writer has met several times during his visits to Cairo in his capacity as special envoy, was well regarded domestically and is well disposed towards India, but his nomination as Vice-President is too little, too late.

The government should issue another statement in which, at a minimum, we should express understanding for the demands of the protesters for reform and our expectation that there will be no use of harsh measures and that the government in Cairo will respond early and positively to these demands so that the country and the region can become stable once again.

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2022 4:31:34 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/Egypt-How-India-should-respond/article15130724.ece

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