Carry on up the Suez: gutless and incompetent Tories bring shame on us all

by Jonathan Todd

The epoch changing events in the Middle East, lest we forget, were precipitated by Tarek el-Tayyib Mohamed Ben Bouazizi. Just over a month later, Karim Medhat Ennarah, an Egyptian protester told the Guardian, with tears in his eyes, that:

“For 18 days we have withstood teargas, rubber bullets, live ammunition, Molotov cocktails, thugs on horseback, the scepticism and fear of our loved ones, and the worst sort of ambivalence from an international community that claims to care about democracy. But we held our ground. We did it”.

In the intervening period, the most that William Hague could do to respond to the beauty and bravery of these protestors was to mouth almost exactly the same measly words as Hosni Mubarak about an orderly transition. Britain managed to be dismissed as at best irrelevant, as Krishnan Guru-Murthy noted, both by the Mubarek regime and by those risking their lives to overthrow it.

Our Garibaldi, David Cameron, wasn’t content. He set off on a crusade for freedom. He was the first western leader to visit post-revolutionary Egypt. All very noble. But are arms really the first thing required in the birth pangs of democracy? And is the most fundamental right of British citizens not protection from indiscriminate violence?

At least two prime ministers, Anthony Eden and Tony Blair, became defined by the Middle East. The unanswered pleas for assistance of British citizens in Libya to the British government as Cameron set out on his freedom mission are the tragic loop of history. Its farce is the phalanx of arms dealers in which he shrouded himself.

Egyptians thought us pointless during their revolution. Cameron’s mantle of missile manufacturers mean they now think us grubby. Rather than demeaning us in this way, Cameron should have ensured that his government executed the same basic function that every government deserving of the name was capable: getting our citizens out of the hell that Libya has descended into. Turbine engineer, John Rouse, told The Evening Standard:

“We are going crazy because everyone is getting rescued but us. The Chinese, French, the Russians, Americans – everyone’s leaving but the British can’t sort it out”.

To minimise suffering in Libya, the UN should have implemented a no-fly zone at the earliest opportunity. But the ability of our prime minister to be doing what he should have been doing – leading the calls for a no-fly zone – is compromised by him not having fulfilled his duty: to rescue all British citizens from Libya. Our capacity to lead these demands is, obviously, constrained both because we almost certainly need to have further flights into Libya to recover our citizens, and because we therefore have such a pressing incentive not to spark reprisals against Britons by Colonel Gaddafi.

Cameron’s government is still addressing last week’s challenges. By now, our citizens should be safely home and a no-fly zone should be in place. Neither of these outcomes, tragically, has been brought about. The debate should now be focused on how many Libyans have to be killed by Gaddafi before we are prepared to risk our troops for them and how we might end the carnage enveloping that country.

Not that sending in troops is necessarily the best way for us to do this. President Obama is right, however, that all options should be considered. And we should now be assessing our options in this regard, not worrying about our fellow citizens stranded amid Gaddafi’s orgy of violence.

If we really want to honour Mohammed Bouazizi, we should always stand up for freedom. We didn’t do this while Egyptians stood up to Mubarek for their freedom. We lacked the competence to ensure the freedom of our citizens in Libya.

Some say that British foreign policy has lacked direction under this government. That the government’s “approach to foreign policy is to not have a foreign policy”. The truth is now emerging: gutless and inept leadership is painfully and needlessly squandering our most precious commodity.

Which is not arms or oil, but freedom.

Jonathan Todd is Uncut’s economic columnist.

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