Doublespeak, duplicity and diplomacy

International Herald Tribune Daily News Egypt

August 9 2011

Philip Whitfield

CAIRO: Before getting ahead of ourselves, remember the canard was uttered a long time ago: Ambassadors are men of virtue sent to lie abroad for their country. Secondly that’s only half the sentence.

A news writer is a man without virtue who lies at home for himself Sir Henry Wotton (1568 – 1639) added. He combined being ambassador in Vienna, with authorship and journalism who’s description of his trades have reverberated every since.

Across the world, governments have asked their Arabism experts to prepare policies to match the new challenges of the post-Mubarak era.

Was Wotton right? Were the representatives of foreign powers stationed in Egypt lying when they gave their fulsome support to Mubarak’s government? Off and on, I mingle with them and, frankly, I can’t remember an immoderate word passing their lips about Mubarak or his ministers.

Quite the reverse. One presentation praised the excellent cooperation on security, investment and cultural exchange between Egypt and Great Britain. Our Egyptian counterparts are very helpful the presenter said. We don’t have a problem.

In the midst of a street kafuffle a few years ago, a senior Egyptian police officer praised the training he’d received in the UK by British policemen to deal with such eventualities.

Clearly the Americans had confidence in the Mubarak security apparatus. They airlifted Al-Qaeda suspects into Cairo to be interrogated by Egyptians.

Now Britain, America, France, Germany, Italy and a host of other countries contemplate presenting their credentials to an Egyptian government of a different hue.

How will they reconcile their previous stance? Hence the flurry of activity in foreign offices in Europe and the State Department in Washington.

Foreign policy was defined absolutely when the Suez Canal was being built, or not built fast enough in Queen Victoria’s opinion. She was fed up hearing of India-bound friends disembarking at Suez to trudge across desert to link up with another ship in the Gulf of Arabia.

Frustrated, she demanded an answer from her prime minister, Henry Temple, Lord Palmerston. Which he did, as Hansard records in his speech to the House of Commons on March 1 1848.

It is a narrow policy to suppose that this country or that is to be marked out as the eternal ally or the perpetual enemy of England. We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.

Ever since, Britain and countless countries have evoked the logic of eternal interests to justify policies abroad.

That’s why Egypt’s new political leaders-in-waiting are putting Britain, America and some European countries on the long finger. China, India and South America don’t have form.

The history of the relationship with the West is ambiguous to say the least. Leaving aside conquests, the eternal interest is the necessity to fuel Europe and America’s industry.

The race was on once William D’Arcy won drilling rights in Persia in1901 in exchange for £20,000 and 16 percent of profits over the next 60 years.

It seemed a cinch. But facing bankruptcy, the British government stepped in and persuaded one of theirs, Burmah Oil to help out. In 1905 huge oilfields were found. In 1944 Everette DeGolyer, a prominent petroleum geologist told the U.S. government Middle East oil was the greatest single prize in history.

Nowadays North Africa’s prize is Liquid Natural Gas (LNG). One way or another Europe and America are invested up to their ears. Egypt’s Mediterranean fields are some of the most attractive. The gas field is deeper than the North Sea’s, requiring the expertise of U.K. drillers.

There are other prizes to be found in Egypt, mostly in the construction of new cities and infrastructure. But none ranks as highly as LNG.

Should Egypt’s new rulers cancel existing contracts, or allow some such as the export of half of Israel’s natural gas usage, the reaction in Europe would be apoplectic.

America’s interests are less towards economic investment. Its raison d’être is a bastion for refugees fleeing age-old conflicts. Being bloodied from Iraq to Afghanistan has bridled twinges of empire.

Remember Barack Obama’s speech at the Grand Hall of Cairo University on June 4 2009. This remains the most researched and reviewed policy document from the President.

These are the core words that changed American policy and put Europe on alert.

No system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election.

But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.

That is the focus of governments all around the world as they shift their policy towards the Middle East and Egypt as the region’s most influential area.

That is why Egyptians should consider carefully who should represent their interests to engage with the world: Those who promulgate nationalist isolationism, illiberalism and socialism? Or those who understand the difference between eternal friends and enemies and eternal interests?

The new geopolitics of responsibility: respecting the principals of justice and tolerance and the dignity of all human beings were enunciated and cheered to the rafters by Egypt’s youth assembled in Al-Azhar on June 4 2009.

Egypt’s youth took to the streets less than 12 months later: not in response, but reflecting a new order that they now suspect is being highjacked. They see self-centered egoists disguised in different political labels than Mubarak’s, displaying similar traits and the panache to deceive diplomatically.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo-based commentator.

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