On John Key’s feeble response to events in Egypt

All very well that John Key is New Zealand’s third Jewish prime minister, as the Jerusalem Post described him at the time of his election.

However, on Monday’s TVNZ’s Breakfast programme Key seemed to be regarding a nation’s stance towards Israel as being the basis of our foreign policy attitude towards them. That is the only conclusion that can be drawn from this bizarre exchange :

Key: It’s a serious situation in Egypt. As we’ve seen, a number of people have lost their lives already. And, worryingly actually, is that Egypt has been one of the few Arab nations that has recognised Israel, in fact the only one. And has been very peaceful with Israel. So, the concern is what that might mean for the wider position in the Middle East. So, a real worry….

Breakfast presenter Corin Dann: I’ll just take you back to that issue of the support for Israel. Egypt has been a very strong ally for the West, which makes this a very difficult situation for the likes of the US, which, I know, has not called for Mubarak to go yet. Where does New Zealand sit on that?

Key: The New Zealand Government wants a peaceful outcome to this. In the end, whoever governs your country is a matter for the citizens. And in the case of Mubarak he’s been there for a long time, 30-odd years. We respect the fact that he has done his very best to lead a country which has recognised Israel and, therefore, has wanted to make sure the position in Middle East has been a peaceful one. It’s not easy, it’s very complex, and there’s a lot of emotion.

Dann: Are you calling for him to go?

Key: No.

Dann: I guess the concern is the Muslim Brotherhood. The potential for an Islamist movement to come in and fill that vacuum. Is that the concern?

Key: Well, the concern is that there are some nations that simply do not recognise Israel. And, taken to the extreme, in Iran, Ahmadinejad has said he basically wants to see Israel wiped off the face of the Earth. So, it’s a very serious situation. Egypt’s provided stability and leadership and calmness. Obviously, the hope always being that that position would spread across the Middle East, that it would be possible to broker a two-state solution, with recognition of Palestine as well but this certainly looks like it’s taking things, potentially, in the wrong direction.’

This is breath-takingly vacuous. Apparently, Because Egypt recognizes Israel – and has allegedly provided “ stability and leadership and calmness” etc in the region – the aspirations for democracy that are bravely being expressed by the Egyptian people on the stets of Cairo and other cities across the country are being opposed by New Zealand’s Prime Minister as “Certainly look[ing] like its taking things potentially in the wrong direction…” Amazing stuff. Newsflash for Key: what Anwar Sadat and his successor Mubarak were offering wasn’t stability, it was tyranny. Here’s Anne Applebaum on Slate spelling out what should be obvious to our Israel-fixated Prime Minister:

Politicians like stability. Bankers like stability. But the “stability” we have so long embraced in the Arab world wasn’t really stability. It was repression. The benign dictators we have supported, or anyway tolerated—the Zine al-Abidine Ben Alis, the Hosni Mubaraks, the various kings and princes—have stayed in power by preventing economic development, clamping down on free speech, keeping tight control of education, and above all by stamping down hard on anything resembling civil society….Independent organizations of all kinds, from political parties and private businesses to women’s groups and academic societies have been watched, harassed, or banned altogether.

The result: Egypt, like many Arab societies, has a wealthy and well-armed elite at the top and a fanatical and well-organized Islamic fundamentalist movement at the bottom. In between lies a large and unorganized body of people who have never participated in politics, whose business activities have been limited by corruption and nepotism, and whose access to the outside world has been hampered by stupid laws and suspicious bureaucrats.

Given that reality, you’d think our Prime Minister would be supporting the brave people out on the streets, and urging the Egyptian leadership not to use violence against them. Moreover, is it asking too much for Key to get his simple facts straight? Remember, he told Corin Dann that Egypt is the ‘only’ Arab state that recognizes Israel. It isn’t. Jordan has had full diplomatic relations with Israel for the past 17 years, since the signing of the Israel-Jordan peace treaty of 1994.

Among Muslim majority nations, Turkey formally recognized the state of Israel as long ago as 1949. Conversely, if recognition of Israel is to be the new benchmark of our foreign policy under Key in future, should exporters to Malaysia and Indonesia be worried? Because neither Malaysia nor Indonesia formally recognize the legitimacy of the state of Israel. Are they, somehow, regarded with hostility by our current PM on that basis?

As for the dreaded Ahmadinejad… Key seems dead keen on having our SAS troops defending Afghanistan. Yet only last year, Afghan leader Hamid Karzai warmly embraced Ahmadinejad as having the same national interests and the same historical cultural links, and as being a key source of security and reconstruction assistance:

Mr Karzai hosted Mr Ahmadinejad at the presidential palace…. Both leaders said Afghanistan and Iran were ‘brother nations’ that have the same national interests and same historical cultural links. Mr Karzai said Iran was helping and assisting Afghanistan with reconstruction projects, improving education and helping provide electricity. He said: ‘We are very hopeful that our brother nation of Iran will work with us in bringing peace and security to Afghanistan so that both our countries will be secure.’

Key is an embarrassment – Mubarak’s last overt friend in the world, outside Israel. Even the Americans have been steadily backing away from him, with Barack Obama calling for an orderly transition. On the ground, New Zealand citizens have also felt abandoned by their leader during this time of crisis.

Other nations – including Australia, Thailand, Canada and the US – have put plans in train to evacuate their citizens from Egypt as the demonstrations approach crunch time. Instead, Key has indicated that there no immediate problem, and talked vaguely of asking the Americans for help if the need arises. New Zealand officials have been denying the need for government action, by saying that the fastest way out of Egypt is on a commercial flight. Oh really? Perhaps they should read this morning’s New York Times :

Chaos reigned at Cairo International Airport, the country’s largest airport, as a sea of tourists and Egyptians scrambled desperately to get on an outbound commercial flight on Monday. Throngs pushed through Terminal 4 where stranded travelers slept on luggage on the litter-strewn floor. A dozen people stood atop ticket counters, seeking a view over the crowd.

Tempers boiled over at times as travelers struggled to get seats on the limited number of commercial flights still operating. At one point the airport stopped posting flight times on its departure board, The Associated Press reported, in an attempt to ease tensions. But the move served only to stoke anger over delays and cancellations.

At every level, the Key response to the crisis in Egypt has been morally bankrupt, feeble and indecisive. In the next 48 hours, Egypt will enter the decisive stage of the uprising against the Mubarak dictatorship. It is too much to hope that by then our vacuous, grinning leader will have finally got on top of the demands that this crisis entails?


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