The best of intentions

Humphrey Hawksley

When governments launch heavy-handed assaults against their own people, Western countries have to decide if, and how, to intervene. But even well-intentioned interventions can have unintended consequences

The blood-ridden upheavals of the Arab uprisings have led to a questioning by Western democracies of their own values, central to which is the dilemma of how much to stay away from tragedy and how much to intervene. 

Driving the thinking are two issues. One is a commitment to a democratic ideal. The other is the compelling motivation that evolved after the Holocaust and the Second World War. The horror of the concentration camps unfolded into an awareness that killing on the grounds of religion or ethnicity could be so efficiently institutionalised that there needed to be a set of global values to prevent it. 

The United Nations drew up conventions on genocide and other unpalatable activities, such as the use of chemical weapons, but they have only ever partly worked. While the value is enshrined, the mechanism to enforce it is absent. 

Therefore the Nazi gas chamber of the 1940s became the Rwandan machete of the 1990s and – in Europe again – the Yugoslav machine gun, culminating in the 1995 massacre of 8,000 in the Bosnian town of Srebenica. 

In both those cases, the international community failed to intervene until it was far too late. 

Those two stains prompted interventions immediately in Bosnia in 1995, then in Kosovo in 1999, Sierra Leone in 2002, Iraq (arguably) in 2003 and Libya in 2011, when the spectre of Srebenica was cited with the warning of slaughter in the city of Benghazi, ending with the air campaign that toppled Colonel Qadhafi. But the sea change had begun. 

A similar spectre in Syria – this time with the added repulsion of chemical weapons – was met, initially, with extreme caution, as if Syria’s Pandora’s box contained a medley of threats far more dangerous than that of Libya’s. 

And, almost simultaneously, Western democracies maintained a measured silence when Egypt’s military abruptly reversed voters’ choice, overthrew an elected president and installed its own government that went on to crush dissent and kill hundreds of the ousted president’s grass-roots supporters. A few weeks later came the first car bombing. The summer of 2013 may well be remembered as the 21st-century wake-up call on Western values because, despite Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria and others, a key question remains unanswered – what type of government is needed to fill the inevitable vacuum that follows the fall of a dictatorship? Given that the United States, the European Union and, indeed, smaller institutions such as the Commonwealth, are steeped in democratic values, some of the answers may appear difficult to absorb, even hostile to conventional thinking. 

But that doesn’t mean to say they are wrong. 

For too many years there has been an almost universal naivety about the hard and dangerous road ahead after the authoritarian glue melts away. In 2003, on the eve of its Iraq invasion, the United States compared the ‘liberation’ of Baghdad to that of Paris in 1945. Yet, ten years later, after well over 100,000 civilian deaths, sectarian car bombings routinely kill. In July this year, there were more killed there than in Syria, while Iraq’s basic services remain appalling. 

A similar euphoria met the 2011 overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak and, bizarrely, the same applause accompanied the rolling of tanks against his successor President Mohamed Morsi – as if simply by getting rid of one ruler a panoply of good things will arrive on the doorstep. And even now, with a vacuum in Syria looming, there seems to be no road map that might pave the way to put in place a legitimate and trusted government. In dozens of interviews with academics, experts and those involved, three immediate points emerge:

– First, as soon as the dictatorship ends, the institutions of state need to be maintained. If the state itself collapses, people turn on each other and form gangs, often based on ethnicity, tribe or religion. State structure is needed to suppress violence

– Second, the new government needs to deliver big results fast in at least one public service that matters to ordinary citizens. An improvement in their lives in a very short period will change the way people think about government

– Third – and this is the really thorny one – elections without strong, supportive and fair institutions can do far more harm than good. Often this emerges as the ‘my turn to eat’ syndrome, whereby the winner excludes and marginalises opponents to the degree that government fails to represent them in any way 

In Iraq, the Sunni minority have revived the insurgency because, despite numerous elections, they feel excluded from the Shialed government. In Egypt, elections delivered the autocratic and inexperienced Muslim Brotherhood which ham-fistedly tried to push through the untested and ideological agenda nurtured for decades while hiding out underground. But instead of mentoring the stubborn Mohamed Morsi to help him understand the workings of the democratic process – and teaching him the skills of compromise and negotiation – the police, business and media blanked him with a wall of opposition and incited unrest that led to the failure of the democratic experiment. 

A useful way to examine the challenge of the vacuum is to recall how others have been filled. In 1986, 27 years before the toppling of Hosni Mubarak, similar street protests, eventually backed by military force, ousted President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and ushered in years of increased insurgency, social unrest and attempted coups d’état. 

In the 1990s, violent crime rates in South Africa shot up under the presidency of Nelson Mandela, while attempts at reform in Russia and Eastern Europe saw wars in Yugoslavia and Chechnya, as well as unprecedented levels of corruption and organised crime. The United States’ control of Iraq led to civil war there, while failing to restore enough basic services for Iraqis to begin trusting their new government. The Arab Spring, therefore, is far from unique – it represents a universality of what people want and how they react. Past events from Europe, Asia and elsewhere give solid signposts on how things might unfold. The mission of a legitimate government (let’s not use the word democratic for the moment) is essentially to create inclusive economic development with a sharing of wealth governed by strong, impartial institutions. 

In developed societies, electoral choice is now the agreed best way to achieve this. In less developed ones, with the traditional rush towards a hastily written constitution and elections, such as with Iraq, Egypt and soon perhaps Syria, this might not be the case. Given the much-predicted domino impact of the Arab uprisings, it begs the question as to why Western governments are so ill-prepared. Much research has been carried out on how to get it right, yet it seems this has yet to percolate into political leadership. Added to the three earlier points of maintaining state structures, delivering basic services fast and determining the benefit of elections, there follows more general criteria which include: 

– Conciliatory and inclusive leadership of the type used by Nelson Mandela in South Africa and now by Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar

– The building of impartial institutions, strong enough to challenge the vested interests of electoral politics

– The promotion of trade and business as drivers for development, using the membership of established organisations, such as the European Union, the Commonwealth and others, as beacons that create fair government and wealth

– The creation of a tax-paying middle class whose higher levels of education and income give it the confidence to hold government to account

– The use of mentors to shepherd new governments to legitimacy. The overarching mentor of the post-Cold War era has been the European Union, which played a major role in preventing conflict and bringing democracy to the once-autocratic East 

The concept of mentoring can also be tricky, and there needs to be a general – albeit often begrudging – acceptance by the general population. But this can be achieved through the partnership of war-weariness and a palpable beacon that shows there is an alternative to mistrust and killing. 

Relatively well-developed Bosnia and Kosovo are still technically run and mentored by the European Union. Liberia agreed to have UN executive oversight in every ministry to stop corruption and instil fairness. The United Nations has been guiding East Timor since 1999. After the Second World War, Germany was run by the United States-led allied occupation for ten years and Japan for seven before full elections were held – and these were in societies with far stronger institutions than those posing a challenge today. 

The cheering as Egyptian tanks rolled onto the streets to depose President Mohamed Morsi highlights an unforgiveable historical amnesia. Essentially, it was applauding the end of something bad without planning how to create something good. 

It has happened too often. The points listed above are compressed from hours of interviews, reams of research documents and reporting over many years from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. They need not be locked into any international convention. Instead, they could be printed on a card to be kept in our back pockets as bullet points for legitimacy and a reminder that democracy can only ever be a broad end goal. 

It represents fairness and hope and not a system of government. 


About the author:

Humphrey Hawksley's The Third World War and Democracy Kills: What's So Good About Having the Vote? are published by Macmillan


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