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Speech by Dr Charles Tannock

Dr. Charles Tannock, MEP

ON: Egypt!

23rd February 2011

Chair: “He is an MEP. He has been a member of the European Parliament since 1999. He was elected at that stage with three other Tories. One of whom is now a government Minister and another who is no longer with us. So, he is a survivor of the 1999 MEP election, the European Parliament election. He started their foreign affairs committee. He is a doctor in psychiatry. Anybody who has any serious problems in that direction, I’m sure you can talk to him afterwards. He is going to talk to us this evening about Egypt, which is enormously topical as we know. We all vary in prospects on what is going to happen in Egypt, and indeed in a number of other countries across North Africa, and indeed in the Arab world. We are looking at the times of very serious change, and we are all very perplexed with what is going to happen next. It is very nice to have somebody today to give his ideas on where this is all leading. I’m very grateful Charles is here.”

Dr Charles Tannock: “Well thank you very much, Lord Hamilton. Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a great honour to be here. I gather I am the first ever MEP that has addressed the audience and I see some heads shaking. Certainly you don’t often invite MEP’s, I’m sure. It may be a sign of the times, whether you like it or not. We have become players in the area of particularly foreign policy, post Lisbon. None of you here will probably recognize the name Mohamed Bouazizi, or very few of you. Perhaps some of those who come from the Middle East. This is a man who died on the 4 January. He was a humbled Tunisian street vendor who self immolated. He set himself on fire in protest of his treatment by the authorities. In particular, the local mayor of his small town in Tunisia. He set off a chain reaction of unrest, which first toppled the Tunisian president and subsequently the Egyptian president. As we speak it may well actually even topple Gaddafi, who has been in power 43 years in Libya.

So this extraordinary event of one small man, in a small town, in a country we know very little about, Tunisia; has set off a kind of hurricane of change across the Middle East. Of course the original protests, particularly in Tahrir Square, were to be expected to those of us who have been following Egypt for a long time, as I have done. There have been decades of corruption and inefficient crony capitalism. I think this possibly was also precipitated by the intention of holding Mubarak to have his son in the kind domestic succession to the presidency, the kind of faux monarchy as it were being invented now in Egypt. There was a monarchy once upon a time. But this is a kind of faux monarchy. There was poverty and large levels of unemployment; around 30% particularly amongst the youth. Of course they paid for a pervasive and oppressive police state to boot. Egyptians, and I’ve know many Egyptians. In fact I even have Egyptians in my family. My mother’s sister was married to an Egyptian. They felt humiliated by all of this.

Many of course have been educated in the west and many of those coming back from western education got used to the ideas of social networking. They got used to the ideas of freedom and liberal democracy. Some were prepared to protest and many were even prepared to die for freedom and democracy. Which I think is a great tribute to those protestors. Of course Egypt in my view brings home to us the star dilemma facing the West, not just the United Kingdom, the United States, other powers in Europe.

What should our geo-political strategy be towards the Muslim world, and in particular the Arab world? Whether we should be supporting stable secular tyrants or whether we should allow, and there is always a risk involved, democracy in the western sense of the word to take roots? And possibly even to allow Islamists to be elected to power. This is the great dilemma and that is still the question on all of our minds. Is there a middle way in the Arab world? Can secular moderate democracy develop in Arab countries? There is no reason why they can not be democratic and Muslim countries.

 I am a strong friend of Bangladesh. In fact I met their prime minister three weeks ago here in London. They threw out the Islamists in a parliamentary election only three years ago in Dhaka. There are many other examples; Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Maldives. Those are all Asian countries. Is there a difference between Muslim Asian countries and Muslim Arab countries? We just do not know the answer. Certainly there is no model in the Arab world; there is no tradition, there has been no precedent for western style liberal democracies with parliamentary elections and competing parties in any of the Arab countries to date.

Of course Egypt, in my view is probably one of the better countries. It does benefit from the fact that there are very few ethnic divisions in Egypt. There is a very large Christian minority, and I am very close to those here in London, whom I have regular discussions with. But they are all Arabs they are all Egyptians. There are very, very few minorities. Of course all the Muslims in Egypt are Sunni, and they do not have the divisions that characterize the country. Like Lebanon, where it is Sunni and Shi’a and Druze. Or even in Syria, where you have the Alawites running the country. There are Sunni Muslims and Christians and very few other minorities there are very few, very small Jewish community in the Islamic system and a very small Armenian community.

 Egypt has the advantage as well as fostering democracy. It doesn’t have oil and that sounds rather counter intuitive statement. Well I actually believe that to a certain extent there is the issue of the curse of oil in the Middle East. Too much oil wealth has actually generated a sense of top-down direction to the economy. Certain states have been able to buy off problems over the years, but they have never actually engaged in any reform. And it is normally characterized by the need for market reform, a transparent economy. Market forces driving more openness and discussion but because there was oil there, there was a large revenue stream.

I think to a certain extent that actually stopped the countries becoming more open in terms of economics. Everything could be controlled by the state because there was money there to finance everything. We see a bit of that of course in Russia as well where it is very much a hybrid carbon economy. It is undone, diversified and it remains very authoritarian, in fact increasingly so over the years. I am also comforted to a certain extent by the relatively bloodless nature of the coup or shall we say the revolution, the Nile revolution to give it its correct terminology, in Egypt. There has not been much spilling of blood, and let us keep our fingers crossed that that will be the precedent in the Arab world. Although, I have to say what I hear and see from what is going on in Libya, you certainly can not forget about that.

I was recently very close to Egypt. Two weeks ago I was in Israel. I have always been a strong fan of Israel, and I have always cherished that Egypt and Jordan are the only two countries in the Arab world to have a peace agreement post Camp David in 1979 with Israel. The Israelis are very concerned there can be no doubt about it. Certainly they do not know what is happening. They are very very worried about the Muslims, they are very very worried about the peace agreement, and they are very very worried about the fact that Iranian war ships have been allowed to sail through the Suez Canal for the first time in 30 odd years.

When I was in Israel, I met the British ambassador. I met a number of other ministers from the government. I met a number of friends of Israel and they were all saying you guys just were not supportive enough of Hosni Mubarak he is a rock of stability, and ally of the west, how could you let him down in such an extraordinary way. But of course we were in a dilemma. Yes we recognized his qualities, but at the same time the man was an authoritarian. Some may say tyrant, but he is certainly an authoritarian strong man. How can we justify the fact that we went into Iraq rightly or wrongly to export democratic values and then say we will not support home grown democratic protestors in a country like Egypt, which clearly was a police state? So we have no way morally or ethically we could justify supporting Mubarak in spite of what my Israeli friends expected of us.

But Israel is very worried. They are very worried because now they need to reconfigure their entire defence strategy. They do not know what is going to happen in the next couple of years. It may well be that there are free and fair elections in the next year or so, it may well be that the Muslim brotherhood will never get a majority. I do not believe that this is the case. I believe we overestimate the support. Even if they get 20% of the popular vote and enter in to some coalition its PR system. If they enter into something like that, and of course it could result from the revocation of the Israel and Egypt peace treaty, it could result in pressure to open the Rafah border. After all the Muslim brotherhood has extremely good links historically traditionally with Hamas who gathered over the Gaza strip.

There are all sorts of worries from the Israeli point of view. So it will mean them shifting a lot of their defence force to the south, to the Sinai desert away from the north where they face immediate threats anywhere from Hezbollah and Lebanon, which is extremely unstable as we speak and away also from defending the Gaza border.

I can understand the Israeli concerns about what is happening. I think the allowing of the Iranian war ships through the Suez is extremely curious, and I am not quite sure why that was allowed to happen. It does send some very worrying signals because they will be supplying at worst arms, but probably just money and material to Syria, which will then end up in the hands of Hezbollah, so we wonder what that is all about.

I speak to you as a MEP. Europe of course is the largest multi-national donor in the world. We have a very well developed European neighbourhood policy. Egypt is part of the sub dimension to this as a recipient of EU aid, and I strongly believe that we must make our aid to Egypt conditional on a number of things, including a genuine democratization of the country. Democracy of course is not just about free and fair elections; democracy has two strands to it. It has the issue of a fair deal at the ballot box, transparency, and free elections. But it is also about freedom and human rights, it is about the issue of the quality of the sexes it is about the issue of freedom to assemble and freedom of religion. I am very strongly associated with the Coptic community here in London, which I represent. They have suffered enormously over the years.

 There was a terrible massacre in Alexandria on New Years Eve in which they were massacred in the streets. They always felt that Mubarak regime did not do enough to protect. Mubarak is secular that is true. But he always threw a little bit of red meat to the Islamists by saying he does not fully respect the rights of the Christians from Egypt. They are a very large number. There are 8 million of them, 10% of population.

So democracy has the electoral side, but it also has the fundamental issue of freedom and fundamental human rights and in particular the rights to peace as you practice your religion. The right to assemble, the right to have free media, the right to have an independent in the judiciary.

These are not traditions; I am afraid which are very well rooted in Egypt, or any other country in the Arab world. The other thing to think about is that a large number of the Egyptian population, particularly the rural population are very religious, that is understandable. But it is worrying when you read a recent survey which suggests that 95% of Egyptians want Islam to pay a major role in politics and government, and that 80% believe that adulterers should be stoned to death.

So I do think that this is not a reason to suggest that the Muslim brotherhood do have a fertile ground in which to campaign and they are in danger of filling a vacuum which brings me up to the other point which is that we do need to mobilize all of our resources here in the west, in Europe and America to build genuine sister parties and this is an old party consensus issue. Left-centre, right whatever but are secular, are democratic and also believe in respecting a reform constitution in which you can be in the government but you can also be thrown out of the government when you become unpopular.

The worry about the Muslim brotherhood, I would be anxious to hear what our expert has to say on this, like all Islamists parties, generally speaking they respect democracy as far as it means being elected once but they do not like the idea of being thrown out of power subsequently at another election. I can not think of a single example of an Islamist theocracy which was actually relinquished power at the ballot box. But I may be wrong, and I would be interested to be corrected on that one particular point.

The other thing about Egypt, which is interesting of course, is the role of the armed forces, particularly the army. Mubarak himself was an air force commander, a general who succeeded Sadat. The army in Egypt is far stronger, more rooted and less divided than in Tunisia. Which is where I started this speech in terms of the Arab world, then the move and transition towards liberal democracy.

The army is much stronger; it has enjoyed extraordinary privileges since 1952. It has accumulated huge wealth. Large chunks of the economy are under the armed forces. So will they voluntarily relinquish these privileges? Will they really want to have a civilian led government? Will they really want to go back to the barracks and just be paid salaries like most armies are in the western world?

That also is a very big question which remains to be unanswered. Are they really just engaging in some kind of cosmetic exercise?

They got rid of Mubarak they did not like the idea of some kind of faux monarchy in Egypt. Nevertheless, they all wanted basically an engineer situation, where behind the scenes there was still control where they could pull all of the strings. A little bit like Turkey was for many decades until the AK party came to power a few years ago. The deep state would now be a military deep state in Egypt with some sort of façade, some sort of a window dressing. A kind of sham democracy because ultimately the military will be the real power brokers of the state. That is another question we really do not know. What we do know is that this is basically the ending of the beginning.

Of course Egypt faces enormous challenges now. One of the consequences of the revolution is that foreign direct investment has dried up. Who is going to invest in Egypt in this climate of uncertainty? Tourism must have also dried up. I can not imagine anyone taking a holiday in Egypt right now, with all of this unrest and potential for violence still to break out.

So the economic challenges are there and we do need to find ways of addressing them. As we speak today there has just been a big conference in Brussels which I just came from. A meeting chaired by Lady Ashton, the high representative. Was essentially a donor conference to see if we can mobilize some kind of mini marshal plan to stabilize Tunisia and Egypt, which are not rich countries per capita. They will need a lot of aid otherwise there is a real danger of unrest, there is a real danger of mass flows of refugees putting resources in our own public services here in this country and our European partners.

Only 2 weeks ago 6,000 Tunisians turned up on the door steps in Lampedusa, Italy to claim political asylum. Some of them are probably secret policemen from the Onslow regime which is extremely bizarre. Others were possibly released prisoners because one of the things done by Ben-ali was actually open the prisons to create chaos during the Jasmine Revolution. But nevertheless 70,000 Tunisians have actually arrived in Italy in the last year. Egypt with a  population 8 times bigger than the population of Tunisia, you can imagine what sort of scale of migrant flows could ensue if that country totally destabilizes and there is not some kind of rule of law and stable government so we have to worry about that from our own national interests as well.

There is also of course the issue of oil which becomes particular when we are talking about Libya. There is a civil war raging in that country, and we have no idea which power will prevail. But I am very minded, and I am old enough to remember this. As a young student at Oxford in 1979, when we saw the toppling of the Shah, Miss Banisadrah came back with Ayatollah Khomeini, and was initially elected on a kind of moderate platform including civilians and secular members of his government and so on. But very rapidly he was swept from power and had to take refuge in France, which ironically is where Khameni had been living for a number of years himself before hand. They established very brutal Islamist theocracy executing many numbers of people.

You just do not know where any revolution will end, we know where it started. We know that very often it is the weakness of the state rather than the strength of the revolutionaries which results in the initial success. I have no crystal ball I can not tell you where Egypt will be in 1 or 5 or 10 years. I sincerely hope it will be better than it was, but I do not know that for sure.

What I do know, is that I think we do right now need to give it every bit of help we can. There is a need not just for the E.U. and the U.S., the U.S. already gives a large amount of money, some 6 billion a year. Also China, China has an incredibly deep pocket, some 2.7 trillion dollars in foreign exchange reserves. They need also to see the need to stabilize the Middle East. They are already extremely well connected with Sudan. To help Egypt would be extremely helpful for them in the long return in an attempt to improve relations in the Middle East.

Egypt will remain a subject of great discussion. Egypt could well be, mind you, in the future, the standard for democracy. That is if we can achieve the kind of dreams that some of us had over Iraq. I supported the Iraq war. I wonder whether I, right now, looking back, if I knew then what I know now, I might have a different view. We had that dream for Iraq, maybe now we can have that dream for Egypt. We have to learn from our own lessons from what went wrong in Iraq, and we have to basically try much harder to achieve something stable, something secular, and something democratic.

We cannot obviously freeze out entirely the Muslim brotherhood, but they must also play by the rules of democracy, and by the rules of human rights and fundamental freedoms. If they are prepared to do that they can be elected to powers. They cannot be legitimate in the same way on the basis just from winning at the ballot box. Hitler won an election, the Communists won in Czechoslovakia, but that did not make them legitimate governments in democratic terms. I am optimistic for the time being, and I really hope that whatever happens will be for the greater good of the Egyptians, but also for the entire region. Also of course for the security of Israel, which is a country very dear to my heart.

 Before I stop, I just wanted to say a few words, because if I am not the first MEP, I certainly bet you have not had many MEP’s address you over the years. I just wanted to say a little bit about the role of the foreign affairs spokesman, the coordinator of my group.  What does it mean to be an MEP in foreign affairs compared to say a member in the National Parliament?

Well I have been an MEP for 11 years now and I have to say, the role of the parliament has grown enormously in the area of foreign policy post Lisbon. Partly because Katherine Ashton, when she was appointed, was deemed to be a weak candidate, she was out to please the other institutions. We were able to negotiate considerable powers for the Parliament we already have the formal powers of deciding the budget of the European external actions service.

Of deciding the staff regulations and we used those very successfully to negotiate new powers which don’t even exist in the treaties. I have explained this to Lord Hamilton, that this can perhaps be a role when you think of reform in the House of Commons and Lords in this country. For instance, every new E.U. Ambassador or Special Representative has to come before the Foreign Affairs committee for a kind of de-facto confirmation hearing. We have been scrutinizing and asking difficult questions. If we did not approve their appointment, they would really be as it were cut off at the knees. They would not have a successful career. So that is one of the roles that we have. We even have the new power now under Lisbon whether you like Lisbon or not, whether you approve what is happening at the European level but this is the fact of life.

We have co-decision on the common commercial policy of all E.U. trade policies, so all of the trade agreements with all foreign countries have to go through the Parliament. Of course aid and trade are one of the major leaders in the terms of foreign policy, particularly in the developing world.

I am the rapporteur for a small country in the western Balkans. I have to say it has been one of the easiest places to be a rapporteur. I am the rapporteur for Montenegro, which is a fairly easy one to digest; in fact my report comes up in the next month. So far it has been very uncontroversial. But all the enlargement processes of the European Union require consent of the European Parliaments. Even before Lisbon, when there was the big bang and we went from 15 to 25, we had to vote on every individual country. Only the House of Commons could vote on the whole package or not so the enlargement process which gives us a lot of leverage with the whole issue of enlargement and the whole expansion of the European Union. If any areas; aid or trade or foreign policy, they overlap. Again, this is almost purely a defence side.

There are one or two successful EU operations. One for instance, the Atalanta Mission of the Horn of Africa, policing against piracy against al-shabaab Islamist terrorism. That was a UK royal navy led operation out of northward that was an example of CSTP working well. Why am I won over by the fact that we need to be pragmatic? Sometimes CSTP can have its advantages. I do not want dutification; I do not want certainly to take resources away from NATO. But there are examples, like for instance that one where because it seemed to be a neutral flag with the stars of the European Union, we can bring in non-aligned countries like India who would then be prepared to do that with a NATO exercise off the Horn of Africa.

So there are hidden advantages in some of the E.U. military missions. And once again the European Parliament basically pays for the budget for all of the civilian missions, like EULEX in Kosovo. It pays for the administration of the military missions, and we have this kind of Parliamentary scrutiny and oversight of what is going on. Catherine Ashton comes before us at least 4 times a year. We get to meet all the key players. Last week in Strasbourg I was asked to meet the new director-general to have a brain storming session as the spokesman from my group on foreign affairs on how we can send aid to Egypt and Tunisia.

We are much more involved and much more crafted than we ever were before. So I have had people say to me, why are you not running for a seat in the House of Commons, why are you not back in the real Parliament? What are you doing in that Parliament over there in Brussels or Strasbourg? I always say that unless I was literally the Foreign Secretary, there was no way as a back bench MP,  I could ever have remotely the access or the inference that I get as an MEP and the coordinator on the foreign affairs committee. That is just the reality, and that is what I enjoy. I love the issue of foreign policy. I love to be the centre of the battle of ideas. So unlike some of my colleagues who have gone back to the House of Commons and wanted to be ministers, I have stayed there as an MEP for the last 11 years. Thank you very much.”