The South Block should thank its stars that India’s two-year term as non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council ended in January. Or else, India would have been under duress to take a stance on the horrendous events in Egypt.
The South Block is happily ducking responsibility. Not a word has been spoken by our loquacious external affairs minister Salman Khurshid or by our perennial junior minister for the Arab sheikhs E Ahamed. Don’t they read the cables from our man in Cairo?
True, Egypt is not on the map of India’s corporate houses for making multi-billion dollar “acquisitions” — or for money laundering. Not even one per cent of the six million-strong Indian diaspora lives in Egypt. Egypt was a founder member of the Non-Aligned Movement, but that too is history.
However, all this will not add up as reason for India’s silence on the events unfolding in Egypt. Why should Egypt matter to India?
Evidently, Egypt is the throbbing heart of the Arab world and what is happening there is bound to cast shadow on the entire West Asia, including the Persian Gulf region where the Indian expatriate community is based. The “Arab Street” is riveted on the reports from Ramses Square in Cairo. It is not only that mosques turned into makeshift morgues in Cairo, but something of historic significance is also unfolding that is destined to change the course of the Arab Spring.
The 1922 Middle East settlement worked out by the erstwhile colonial powers Britain and France in the downstream of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire has disintegrated, and the democratic transformation of archaic societies and the replacement of an entire political order cannot brook further delay.
Tunisia and Egypt held out hope that Islam and democracy are compatible. Therefore, the swing of the political pendulum back towards the pre-revolutionary era in Egypt is retrogressive. The Muslim Brotherhood won by the rules of electoral politics and plural democracy the world over and went on to form the government. The subsequent interpolation of “inclusive” democracy and/or “secularism” meant changing the goal post.
The argument has been so very overstretched in Egypt to the point that it has come to be about the “eligibility” of the Muslim Brotherhood to run a government, no matter its electoral mandate.
But then, unless and until the democratic world switches to the Gandhian ideology of Panchayati Raj, we are stuck with majority principle as the basis of democratic functioning.
This brings us to the second point, namely, why is the ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood causing such heartburn? The answer lies in the Brotherhood’s regional appeal, which unnerves many quarters – ranging from Israel, Syria and Russia to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. For Israel, although Mohamed Morsi’s government treaded carefully not to jettison the 1979 peace treaty or to normalise with Iran, the crux of the matter is that Hamas happens to be an offshoot of Brotherhood and the flame of resistance may glow in a new Middle-East where Brothers prevail. For the Persian Gulf autocracies (and Syria), Brotherhood looms large as the torchbearer of “regime change”.
Russia’s antipathy toward the Brotherhood is historical, which is reinforced today by the geopolitical rivalry with the US for influence in the Middle East.
Of course, India has no reason to get entangled with these regional antipathies. What matters most is that historically al-Qaeda’s top mentors have been Egyptian Salafists.
The spectre that haunts us is that unless political Islam is allowed to become a full-fledged participant in democratic life, there is the real danger of the radical Islamists dominating the narrative. That would be recipe for a seamless “war on terror” in which there are no victors. India as a ‘frontline state’ bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan – and with a huge Muslim population exceeding 150 million – has much to lose if Islamism in its extended neighbourhood gets radicalised.
The Saudis strive to manipulate the Salafists in such a way that they are kept out of Saudi Arabia but can be put to use to whip up Sunni-Shia frenzy for curbing Iran’s surge as regional power. But the threat posed by Salafism cannot be underestimated. Put differently, the opportunity to assimilate political Islam as a participant in democratic life, which Arab Spring offered, should not be wasted.
Suffice to say, India cannot afford to fall for the propaganda juxtaposing Brotherhood with Egypt’s “liberals”. The dissimulation served the purpose of the Mubarak-era “deep state” to stage a comeback in Egypt, a process that the Persian Gulf’s sheikhs who are unnerved by the ascendancy of political Islam generously bankroll.
The exit from the interim government by Nobel laureate Mohammed ElBaradei, a liberal of great standing, gives away the matrix.
The stance adopted by China regarding the events in the Middle East should set the South Block thinking. Beijing advocates that Egypt’s junta should exercise restraint and reconcile the Brotherhood in the interests of regional stability. Indeed, China faces the threat of religious extremism, but it makes a careful distinction regarding the moderate Brotherhood, which has shown willingness to play the game of plural democracy.
China also has thriving economic partnerships with the petrodollar oligarchies of Persian Gulf. The Indian elites should appreciate that the charms of “green money” cannot dictate national interests.
The writer is a former ambassador of India to Turkey and Uzbekistan.