By Osama Diab
Britain’s former foreign minister David Miliband has high hopes for the Arab revolutions.
Wednesday 27 July 2011
David Miliband is not just the former British foreign minister, but is also a man who is genuinely interested and highly opinionated on issues relating to terrorism, political Islam, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Arab revolts. As Britain’s foreign secretary at just 41, Miliband has been a strong critic of the so-called War on Terror and also called for a “coalition of consent” with the “Muslim World” in which Britain’s foreign policy should focus on building relations with Muslim societies, rather than with regimes that are unpopular among their people.
He has also been a strong advocate of a Palestinian state and listed “Israeli government to freeze settlements and accept a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders” as one of the prerequisites to peace in the Middle East in 2009, during his time as the man in charge of Britain’s international relations.
From his office overlooking the nearly thousand-year-old Palace of Westminster, I tried to gauge as much as I could David Miliband’s opinions on the major issues facing the world today.
Knowing that my time in his office was limited, I was prepared for the interview to be short, possibly cold and to the point, without taking offence. However, Miliband unexpectedly started by jokingly requesting to be asked a question about Ahmed al-Muhammadi, an Egyptian footballer recently signed by Sunderland Football Club, which Miliband vice chairs. Even though his joke took a few minutes of the time I was allocated, it gave a much-needed charm ahead of the yet-to-be-discussed critical issues related to the emergence of Arab democracy, Arab revolts and how it might impact the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the killing of Osama Bin Laden and the decade following the 9/11 attacks.
The world 10 years after 9/11
You famously said before that there are circumstance in which terrorism is justifiable, what, in your opinion, are these circumstances?
DM: That isn’t quite right. I was asked whether the actions of the African National Congress in the 1970s and 1980s should be denounced as terrible acts and I said no because of the political system under which they were living. The question I was asked was specifically about apartheid South Africa.
So if people are denied political avenues, is it justifiable for them to act violently?
DM: I think the classic case for Europeans is always “if you were in France in 1942, would you have joined the French resistance?” and of course the answer is “yes”. But fortunately these circumstances don’t exist very often. I think the non-violence that has marked the Arab revolts has been very powerful.
It’s no secret that the 9/11 attacks did a lot of harm to the Muslim-West relations, and that also includes the relation between Muslim communities in the West and their societies. Ten years after the vicious attacks, does the tension caused by 9/11 still persist?
DM: The attacks on 9/11 were vicious. They killed Muslims, as well as Christians, Jews and people of no denomination. They were an abomination for people of all religions. I think that the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 which is now approaching is an important moment to take stock. I think one of the remarkable things about this country (the United Kingdom), which I know better than others, is that the last 10 years have not seen the tension and the hatred that maybe you are referring to. One of the remarkable things here after the 7 July 2005 bombing in London was to hear Muslim friends of mine say “look, we felt more British after this, not less British.” Now, one mustn’t avert one’s eye from the fact that there are tensions, there can be tensions, but often they exist over housing or economic issues more than international political issues. So I think one needs to be careful in saying that 9/11 was the cause of tension between the West and Muslims and the Arab world.
But the consequences of 9/11 were two wide-scale wars.
DM: A lot of people disagree with Afghanistan and Iraq, and disagreement doesn’t have to mean inter-religious tension as opposed to political debate. I think the prism from which the West is seen in many parts of the Arab world is obviously Israel and Palestine. That was not the justification that was used by al-Qaeda in 9/11, and it was obviously not the motivating factor on the streets of Egypt or the streets of Tunisia or anywhere else.
I think the remarkable thing about the Arab revolts is that they have been driven by domestic concerns. They were driven by the search for dignity and the search for national pride.
I think it’s been a very challenging decade. I call it “a decade of disorder”. But not only because of 9/11. It’s been a decade of financial crisis, it was a decade of shifting economic power between the West and emerging economies. A lot has been going on and I don’t think it’s right to just call it a decade of Muslim-Western tension.
You wrote before that “The call for a ‘war on terror’ was a call to arms, an attempt to build solidarity for a fight against a single shared enemy. But the foundation for solidarity between peoples and nations should be based not on who we are against, but on the idea of who we are and the values we share.” Was Osama bin Laden that single shared enemy, and what do you make of his killing?
DM: I think the War on Terror was announced after 9/11. It was a concept that went much further than the so-called “Axis of Evil”. I think it was a great mistake because it united a series of grievances under the al-Qaeda banner, which in a way played their game, so I think that the notion of a War on Terror was not well-founded because it aggrandised al-Qaeda in a way that is almost the opposite of what was needed. They were attempting to unite the Muslim world under a single revolutionary banner. The best strategy to take that on would’ve been to fragment and then deal with the concerns individually. I don’t support the notion of a War on Terror. I think that was not sensible. What I support is a notion of a drive against injustice.
In that light, do you consider the killing of Osama bin Laden a victory?
DM: I think the weakening of al-Qaeda, which has been done in a range of ways, some of them militarily but most of them were by Muslims rejecting al-Qaeda, is a very good thing for the whole world.
So do you think the killing of Bin Laden did weaken al-Qaeda?
DM: Yes, I do. I think that he was a symbol as well as a guiding mind, so in balance, of course, it weakens them. I am persuaded by scholars who write in the Arab and Muslim world that certainly after the bombing of a wedding in Jordan in 2005, there’s been a growing rejection of revolutionary jihad in the Muslim world, and an embrace of various forms of political Islam. I think that the notion of a “call to arms” has been rejected in favour of political engagement.
Some of the Arab uprisings were against leaders who were part of the War on Terror, such as Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Abdallah Saleh of Yemen, but some were seen, especially by the West, as helping terrorism, such as Qaddafi and al-Assad. Do you think the “Arab Spring” and challenging Arab dictatorships would help contain extremism or maybe spread it?
DM: I think the first thing to say is that the authors of these revolts are Arabs not Westerners. These are Arab revolts, not Western-inspired or directed revolts. It was a call for personal dignity, a call for personal and national improvement, and in Egypt it was a call to restore national pride in a 6,000-year-old civilisation that seemed to be in decline in the Mubarak years.
So I think the best way to contain extremism is to include people in the political process. What you need is inclusive politics. President Mubarak lost legitimacy in the eyes of his own people. He lost legitimacy because of corruption, kleptocracy, broken promises and a lack of mandate. He lost legitimacy because he wasn’t listening and there seemed to be no national path for Egypt.
There’s no question that his lack of legitimacy corroded the reputation of the West. We were in alliance with someone who in the eyes of his own people had growing disrespect. Violent extremism needs to be taken on politically and in security terms. Societies have to defend themselves against violence, but the best way to do that is in alliance with an open political system.
There is always a fear of instability. But Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, now has a democratic government. Turkey, which is a rising power of 80 million people, has a version of political Islam which I don’t see as a danger to Turkey’s democracy; I actually see it as part of Turkey’s democracy.
People like me mustn’t be naïve and pretend that decades of repression and autocracy are overcome overnight, and that the path to stable orderly democratic rule within international norms is going to be smooth, but I think it is better than the alternative.
Now each country in the Middle East needs to find its own path to legitimate, accountable government and respect for the dignity of people. That does not mean that every country is going to be a liberal democracy overnight, but that is something the countries would have to chart in their own way, and the monarchies in the Arab world are in a different position from the republics. I think a country like Egypt seems to be set on a very clear democratic path even in the medium term. I am confident about that. What I would say to you is that stable democracies are about much more than just votes; they are about independent institutions and civil society: media, judiciary, academia, and business that are able to hold accountable the abuse of power.
What’s your assessment of how disastrous the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were for the UK’s foreign relations with Arab and Muslim countries and what were the challenges the wars raised for you as foreign minister?
DM: There were very profound challenges raised. I think that Britain’s relations with the Arab world was strong and respectful in my period as foreign minister. I think that there’s some shared challenges that we are working on. I think the Afghan war can only be ended by political settlement, and the Arab and the Muslim world need to be part of that.
The uneasy birth of Arab democracy
How is Libya different from Syria in the eyes of the NATO. In other words, why did they choose to interfere in Libya but not Syria, even though civilians are under an equal threat in both countries, if not more so in Syria?
DM: There is a pressing humanitarian need in both countries. But in Libya there was a military option with limited geostrategic dangers, whereas in Syria there isn’t a military option and the geostrategic dangers are high.
You called for the West to adopt a “Coalition of consent” approach with Middle Eastern countries, how would that play out if the people of Egypt, for example, choose to be governed by a form of government that is unpopular in the West, like what happened in Gaza when Hamas was elected in fair elections?
DM: I believe that you live and let live, until the assertion of someone else’s rights interfere with your rights, and that’s true in our personal relations. I respect your rights to live your life in the way you see fit until you try to interfere with my life as I see fit.
What applies to people also applies to nations. Nations should be able to decide how to govern themselves, but there need to be international norms to make sure that the way they [govern themselves] doesn’t interfere with someone else’s rights. In a crowded neighbourhood like the Middle East, that is especially important.
What would you have you done differently to the current foreign secretary in relation to the Arab revolutions if they happened during your time as the man in charge of Britain’s foreign policy?
DM: I’m not seeking to make partisan points. But what I think is very important about foreign policy around the world is that it’s multilateral not just bilateral and I think it’s got to be about more than commercial diplomacy; it’s got to be about the full range of political engagement. So I think that’s the sort of foreign policy I would like to run, and that’s the sort of foreign policy I will advocate.
Do you think the war in Libya will be as disastrous and lengthy as Iraq and Afghanistan?
DM: No. I don’t. I think Libya is a very different case. I think stalemate is better than slaughter, but It’s very important that the military arm and the political arm know what the other is doing. The decision of the Arab League to call for intervention in Libya was very significant in the West, but Arab countries need to take responsibility because Gaddafi was a problem for you as well.
Do you think democracy is more sustainable if driven by the people or imposed by foreign powers?
DM: It must be driven by the people. Sustainable solutions are always driven by a sense of ownership that people have of their own lives.
Do you think then the situation in Egypt or Tunisia is more promising than in Iraq?
DM: That’s obviously the case because it’s driven from below and driven by a sense of ownership. I think one has to be respectful of the difficulties that lie ahead. This is a long process not a short process. It involves building durable institutions, such as free media, independent judiciary, etc. I do personally think that next year the economic situation will be very important. Egypt needs productive investment. It needs wealth creation because it’s still got massive inequality – one of the legacies of the Mubarak years. But over the medium term, I am confident that Egypt is a country whose people can make their own way and make a positive contribution both for themselves and the wider Middle East.
Hopes for peace and a Palestinian state
The US threatened that it might stop its funding to the UN if the general assembly voted in favour of a Palestinian state in September. Do you think the US threat is legitimate?
DM: I think the current administration have made good faith attempts to further some shared goals in the Middle East, including a Palestinian state that live alongside Israel. I am a strong supporter of a two-state solution. I think Israel has the right to exist but I think Palestinians also have a right to a state. I think it’s very important for the whole international community to support something like that. So I don’t think that’s a time for talking about retribution, but that’s a time for talking about positive constructive engagement.
How do you think the political changes in the Middle East might affect the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or peace negotiations?
DM: I think Arab states with democratic mandates will be better able to advocate for the Palestinians. Egypt, as an Arab democracy, will be a far better ally of the Palestinians.
This article first appeared in al-Ahram Online on 22 July 2011. Republished here with the author’s consent. ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.