Derrick O’Keefe: Three years on, Stephen Harper is still an enemy of the Arab Spring
A favourite line of those who uncritically defend the actions of the Israeli state is that critics unfairly “single out” the government led by Benjamin Netanyahu. Stephen Harper framed much of his speech last week to the Knesset around this trope.
This is a complete fallacy, as we can see by digging down a little on what the Toronto Star called “shockingly callous” remarks about the situation in Egypt. Speaking at Tel Aviv University, where he was presented with an honorary doctorate degree, Harper spoke positively about the coup regime in Egypt as a “return to stability”.
Far from being a brave defender of Israel in the face of critics who ignore the depredations of other governments, the prime minister’s remarks in Tel Aviv remind us that he has consistently put “stability” above “democracy”, ignoring or belittling popular movements for freedom and justice.
Netanyahu’s critics in Canada and internationally aren’t singling him out; they’re the ones who are also criticizing the regime in Egypt, and the Gulf dictatorships like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar—while Harper and his ilk apologize for or sell weapons to those regimes. Far from singling anyone out, we are the ones upholding universal values. As we say in the labour movement: what we wish for ourselves we desire for all.
And while Harper’s support for Netanyahu is somewhat singular in the sense of being completely over-the-top and influenced by extremist religious-political views on the Middle East, it still fits logically within a worldview that backs the powerful against the powerless, preferring oppression (that’s often what “stability” is a euphemism for) to the egalitarian menace posed by freedom and democracy. That’s why Harper has been an enemy of the Arab Spring from the start, and a friend to many of the region’s worst regimes.
Three years ago, the eyes of the world were on Egypt. Following the mass movement in neighbouring Tunisia, which overthrew the Ben Ali dictatorship, Egypt rose up. Tahrir Square became a worldwide symbol, as a democracy movement emerged from decades of semi-underground struggle into open defiance of the regime. In just three weeks, Mubarak was forced to step down.
While Tahrir Square inspired the world, Harper was less than enthused, only very reluctantly siding with the demands of the pro-democracy protesters. In fact, Harper was one of the last world leaders to acknowledge and sympathize with the monumental events which became known as the Arab Spring and inspired hope throughout the world in 2011.
As late as one week before Mubarak’s ouster, and in contrast even to the U.S. government, which has traditionally backed Egypt’s military dictatorship, Harper stopped short of calling for the dictator’s removal. Matching much of the rhetoric from the Israeli government, Harper’s comments during these historic weeks in 2011 emphasized “stability” over democracy.
The military regime and the interests behind Egypt’s “deep state” never gave up power; they simply bided their time. Then last July, manipulating many legitimate grievances with the elected government of president Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, the generals seized power. In August, the security forces of the new regime committed what Human Rights Watch has called “the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history”.
Egypt’s incipient democracy has been strangled and drowned in blood. This stark reality was driven home over the past 48 hours, on the third anniversary of the 2011 uprising. In running “clashes”—an unfortunate term to describe one-sided battles between flesh and steel, between protesters and security forces—89 people were killed, according to an independent count. Then, on Monday (January 27), the ruling generals announced that they would allow army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to run for the presidency, and that elections would be held sooner than planned.
For Harper, this cruel fate for Egyptians means that those who eagerly supported the Arab Spring should be “chastened”, as he claimed in his comments in Tel Aviv. In this cynical tautology, those who dared to disrupt the stability of Mubarak are themselves to blame for the repression of the coup and the bloodshed unleashed by Sisi and the generals.
I was encouraged to see solidarity rallies take place this past weekend in cities across Canada. In Vancouver, I attended a rally at the art gallery on Saturday (January 25), and listened as Lamia Siam recounted the horrific story of her brother’s murder at the hands of Egyptian security forces last summer. Sharif Gamal Siam was one of 37 men who died in a prison transfer van in August 2013.
This is just one example of the terrible human cost of the “stability” that Harper cheerleads, while refusing to “single out” Egypt’s new dictatorship for criticism. Canadians deserve a better and more compassionate voice in the world than Harper’s. We all owe it to the courageous people of Egypt to stand with them in their long and difficult struggle for democracy.