The Hillaire Belloc fallacy

For decades, western countries have propped up ’strongmen’ in the Middle East. Some proponents of ’realpolitik’ believe that this is still a viable and desirable policy. The only alternative to secular dictatorships is theocratic dictatorships committed to jihad. But where is the evidence for this proposition?


The poster child for supporters of Arab dictatorships was not an Arab at all, but the late Shah of Iran. His régime was rated as the worst in the world by Amnesty International in 1978. As an idealistic teenager, I was worried at the implications of his fall for the Cold War, but relieved that, in human rights terms, things could not get any worse. But they did. Much worse.
And, so some of the big names in the foreign policy establishment warn us, the same could happen in Arab countries. They worry that the liberation of Iraq will make things worse. If allowed to vote, Arabs may vote for régimes at least as awful domestically as the ones they have now, and relentlessly hostile to the west as well. But where people like Brent Scowcroft and Douglas Hurd go wrong is to equate domestic brutality with stability.

During the Cold War, the west co-operated with some unsavoury dictatorships. “He may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard” was the motto in the corridors of power. And faced with a foe like the Soviet Union, massively armed with nuclear and conventional forces, and bent on world domination, this was a reasonable policy.

The Shah of Iran was among those who warned the west that his downfall would produce a new government that was pro-Soviet, or at least anti-western. The Soviets seemed to believe it too. In the zero-sum game of Cold War diplomacy, a loss for America was a gain for the USSR. They provided help and support to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolution.

It is probable that the Soviets thought the Iranian theocracy would be short-lived and chaotic, and that a pro-Soviet régime could then be installed. This was a monumental miscalculation. Instead the Islamist infection took further hold in their existing satellite, Afghanistan. Here it was the west that supported the Islamists, and tempted the Soviets into the ultimately fatal decision to invade Afghanistan, less than a year afer the Shah’s fall, to prop up their threatened clients.

Iran and Afghanistan had in common an embattled secular dictatorship that was unpopular and associated with an outside super-power. Both repressed all forms of secular opposition, leaving the mosques as only centres of dissent – indeed the only places people could lawfully assemble outside the auspices of the state. Thus far, they have everything in common with present day Arab dictatorships. But what they also had was a theocratic opposition engaged in an alliance of convenience with another super power. On the principal that ’my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ the Soviets supported the Ayahtollah and the west supported the Taleban.

Outside the Cold War context, the situation changes dramatically. We no longer have the same reason to support dictatorships which are aligned against communism, and neither Russia nor the US has any need to support insurgents against each other’s allies.

And yet, we still have enemies. There may be no Soviet Union, but there is still Al Qaeda. If an Arab dictator falls, it could still be worse for the west. The silky smooth voices of the diplomatic establishment still whisper the words of Hillaire Belloc: “always keep ahold of Nurse, for fear of finding something worse”.

This is exactly what Arab dictators want us to believe. We can’t manage without them. Apres moi, le deluge. If they ever fall the Soviets/the Ayahtollahs, will be there instead. It is what they say to western diplomats all the time. But it isn’t what they really think. President Mubarak of Egypt wants the west to THINK he is worried about the Muslim Brotherhood. But what really keeps him awake at night is the thought that western liberal democracy might infect his country.

In promoting the fear of theocracy, the Muslim Brotherhood is not his enemy, it is his ally. In Egypt’s recent elections, parties promoting western style reform were banned. Activists who proclaimed this agenda were attacked by the Muslim Brotherhood, while Mubarak’s police turned a blind eye. The Muslim Brotherhood was the only effective opposition party, and it only contested a handful of the available seats in Parliament.

People who resented the current régime – and there are countless reasons to do so – had only one option, to vote for the Brotherhood. And those who feared that in government the Muslim Brotherhood would be even worse than Mubarak could be assured that there was no chance of that happening. If they won every seat they contested, they would still be in a minority.

If Mubarak feared the Islamists, they are the ones he would have banned from the election. It suited him that they should win a handful of seats. It suits them both to ignore the growth of Egypt’s middle class and its demands for economic and political liberalisation. It suits them to pretend there is no Arab internet, and no-one watching Al-Jazeera or Al-Arabiya. In fact, political debate and the exchange of ideas proceed apace.

Whether they like it or not – and neither Mubarak nor the Muslim Brotherhood like it at all – the Egyptian population wants change. And that is the thing that they both fear the most.

Quentin Langley is editor of an academic at the University of Cardiff and is a columnist with Campaigns & Elections.