> With the Egyptian army passing a draft of consitutional amendments to be submitted for a national referendum, the country, and indeed most of the Middle East, remains in turmoil. What is next for the region, and at what cost?
Until February 11, Hosni Mubarak was the final representative of the way the West did business, but after eighteen days of protests and riots he finally stood down from his ruling position and Egypt fell into the hands of the military.
The repercussions of this fall have felt all over the Middle East, from Bahrain to Libya, who are brutally repressing protests using tear gas and other dubious means, legitimately imported from British companies.
However, the British company NMS has defended its business practice, stating that the armoured, heavy duty vehicles they sold to Libya were not designed to be used in any hostile fashion, but instead to safely transport police officers. In the last four years the company have sold ten of the vehicles to Libya, and were also hired to train the Libyan police force in the use of ‘non-lethal weapons’, including teargas canister launchers. A interesting definition of non-lethal, then.
A director of the company said that they only taught the Libyan police in accordance with the British policing system; methods which involved not carrying any lethal-weaponry and giving protesters “lots and lots of warning” before more forceful weapons were employed.
Despite these assertions, riots in Egypt, Libya and Bahrain have been brutally contained. On the February 18, a video depicting peaceful protesters walking down a road in Bahrain was uploaded to YouTube. As soon as the protesters arrived within a short distance of a blockade on the road, they came under attack from police. Yet more civilians to add to the rapidly rising overall death toll number in the Middle East since the riots began.
Whilst Theresa May may have advocated the use of water cannons in December, they were, thankfully, unnecessary. The brutal tactics employed in the Middle East hardly sound like British policing tactics. Kettling and the like may be wrong, but imagine if the British police opened fire on one of the peaceful student protests? Britain would be in a state of panic.
All of this uproar has resulted in the United Kingdom revoking arms export licenses to Libya for the time being which could potentially cause the country more problems, it may yet help to solve those of other countries. The protesters are confronting rulers who have been wooed by generations of Western politicians, resulting in a challenge to a post-war foreign policy. Is now the time for a new era of shared values; an end to partisan national interest?
It remains to be seen what reaction this response would have, but Foreign Secretary William Hague has “promised” that export licenses will be closely scrutinised from now on and has called on Arab leaders to show restraint and reform. The noises coming from the UK are mixed. Aside from the terrible planning and execution of the evacuation, and Hague’s decision to shut the Embassy with Briton’s still in the country, these restraints on licenses could prove to be an effective solution, if a little late for the hundreds who have already died.
The real power though, as always, lies in Washington. The dilemmas that the Egyptian crisis has caused have been worrying for the administration at the White House, and it’s visible for all to see. That Washington’s fingers are in may be coming back to haunt them once again. They’re already trying to solve everyone else’s problems, so do they have time for those of the Middle East? Quite frankly nobody knows at this point in time.
Egypt is now at an economic standstill, and protests continue in the streets. The military have politely asked for them to cease, but it seems unlikely that will work. The worrying thing is that no-one is sure of what steps they may take next.
In neighbouring Libya, the situation is getting progressively worse, with the country on the brink of civil war. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader has lost almost all support with drastic results. The resulting footage of the riots have shocked the Western world; the same Western world whose countries supplied the Libyan army with their means of containment. Security forces have started to storm into the hide-outs of protesters and there have been reports of the military using live ammunition in the numerous clashes.
With tens of thousands of migrant Egyptian workers trapped on the Libyan border with Tunisia, in is hard to argue that the riots and uprising can be contained to individual countries. This is a crisis that involves an entire region. A crisis, it could be argued, or unprecedented scale.
Since February 17 at least two hundred and thirty-three people have died, although the Libyan government quickly defended this, claiming the numbers have been highly exaggerated. There are reports from several of the country’s cities which demonstrate that it is in fact in crisis. In Az-Zawiya, only twenty five miles from the country’s capital Tripoli, witnesses say police have fled, government buildings have been burnt down and the city is in the hands of rioters and looters.
David Cameron’s visit to Egypt on February 21, is the first of a world leader since Mubarak was toppled. However, as always, not is all as it seems. Cameron was already intending to visit the Middle East before all of the rioting took place, but to discuss something far more ‘important’, Britain’s trade relationship with the Middle East. Courteously, he decided to change the itinerary of his visit and will try to assist with the country’s chaotic crisis.
However, he has been attacked and criticised for this ‘ill-timed’ visit, with some exclaiming he should have cancelled. It is believed that Cameron will exploit the current situation in a bid to promote trade links. The same trade links, perhaps, which facilitated the sale of armaments to the Middle East. Clearly he feels the region is lacking in that area.
Ironically, Cameron wasn’t even joined by the Defence minister Gerald Howarth on his trip, as he was pre-occupied at the International Defence Exhibition and Conference, which is aimed at governments in the Middle East and North Africa. Cameron was instead joined by people such as Rob Watson, regional director of Rolls-Royce. Rolls-Royce, for those who remain bemused by the luxury car marques involvement in any military matters, makes engines for numerous military aircraft.
It’s unsure what will happen now that Mubarak has been ousted, and no-one wants to think of how long these riots will continue for in Libya and Bahrain. As Ed Miliband noted in his column in The Observer, for a government in domestic crisis to reduce foreign policy into the pursuit of profit is at once hypocritical and deplorable in the extreme.