Government’s shoddy response
Prime Minister John Key will have been grateful that so little attention was paid by mainstream media outlets to the New Zealand Government’s response to the historic events in Egypt.
As the democratic revolution began in Cairo, Key was asked bluntly by Breakfast television host Corin Dann whether he thought the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak should go. Key replied: ‘‘No.’’
This at a time when even the White House was calling for an orderly transfer of power. Among the few reasons Key offered was that Egypt had been the only Arab nation to support Israel.
Apart from being factually wrong – Jordan recognised Israel in the early 1990s – it was unclear why recognition of Israel should be such a significant yardstick of this country’s foreign policy.
We enjoy substantial trade relationships with many nations in the Middle East and elsewhere ( including Malaysia and Indonesia) that, rightly or wrongly, have not formally recognised Israel’s annexation of Palestine as being legitimate.
Having put itself out of step with our traditional allies – who with varying degrees of unsubtlety were calling for Mubarak to hand over power – New Zealand took almost the entire duration of the crisis to revise its position.
It was only on February 11 (one day before Mubarak stepped down, and just after he had issued a defiant speech inflaming the situation) that Foreign Minister Murray McCully felt able to call for change.
‘‘Clearly, substantive and meaningful reforms are required if the administration is to meet the legitimate expectations of the Egyptian people,’’ said McCully. ‘‘Equally clearly, that process needs to commence with sufficient commitment to diffuse current tensions.’’
Even at this 11th hour, could New Zealand bring itself to denounce Mubarak for refusing to heed the calls of the demonstrators to resign? Not quite.
‘‘It is not yet apparent how today’s speech from the President will contribute to that process. But it is already clear that many of the protesters will continue to call for more reform, more quickly.’’
What followed then was an ungainly attempt at even-handedness.
‘‘We join others in urging the Egyptian leadership to listen and respond, and the protesters to pursue their objectives through means that are non-violent and constructive,’’ said McCully.
Was this the best we could do to assist the demise of 30 years of tyranny?
To ‘‘urge’’ (not ‘‘demand’’ or ‘‘insist’’) that the despot should ‘‘listen and respond’’ while we lectured the non-violent demonstrators (who had just lost more than 300 dead to the forces of repression) to continue to pursue their objectives in ‘‘nonviolent and constructive’’ ways.
Safe to say, this was not New Zealand diplomacy’s finest hour. Perhaps no-one outside New Zealand would care that we chose to remain Mubarak’s last, best friend – outside of Israel, at least.
Before this crisis, the assumption was that New Zealand would rejoin the chorus of our traditional allies. Such readiness would – for example – have almost certainly led to us marching off to war in Iraq, if the decision at the time had been left to a National-led Government.
During the crisis in Egypt, however, the more disturbing conclusion was that our leaders seemed unable to hear what even our traditional allies were saying.
Gordon Campbell is an experienced political journalist and columnist who has written for The Listener and Scoop.