As Guy Rundle noted yesterday, Egypt has left the Right in a real tizzy.

The dilemma is obvious — do they try to make a last, desperate bid to justify the neoconservative project, left wholly discredited by the disaster of the Bush years, by claiming Egypt as their own? It might be sort of home-grown version of Iraq, complete with “Mission Accomplished” banner on the pyramids — though what a pity possible torture charges are likely to prevent Dubya from flying in. Or do they adopt the Israeli position that this is a disaster, and run the usual Islamophobic line by suggesting that, as in Iran, the mullahs are just around the corner, waiting to add Egypt to the fundamentalist column?

British conservative Melanie Phillips tried to have it both ways, damning the Left for supporting the overthrow of Mubarak and not Saddam Hussein, but warning of the threat posed to Israel. Which — you’ll never guess — she called “the only democracy in the region”. The Left, she implied, was happy to cheer on the Egyptian uprising because unlike Saddam, Mubarak was an American ally.

She carelessly omitted the bit about how Saddam was an even closer American ally than Mubarak right up until he sent his army into Kuwait, thinking George H.W. Bush was agreeable to his unilateral resolution of a dispute with Kuwait over oil. The Americans had provided considerable hardware for Hussein’s army, after all, including the helicopters used to gas Kurdish civilians in 1988.

All up, Phillips’s piece would have to be one of the more sickening efforts at commentary on Egypt, especially while Arabs are being killed in Bahrain and Libya for protesting right now, and Iranian protesters were being murdered in like manner by the butchers of Tehran. Her reference to “this supposedly diabolical Mubarak presidency” was bad enough. Perhaps Phillips could have a look at what Mubarak’s police force did to Khaled Said, an incident pivotal in rallying protesters across Egypt, and reconsider her qualifications about the West’s faithful ally in the land of the Pharaohs.

But her comparison of Iraq and Egypt was altogether more odious. The neoconservative project for Iraq was of a US-style democracy airlifted in and imposed from above, complete with billion-dollar contracts for US companies. The role of ordinary Iraqis was limited to throwing flowers at American soldiers and the occasional bit of over-exuberant, “messy” looting.

That project, so carefully managed with the inordinately expensive assistance of Erik Prince and his trigger-happy “contractors”, has cost more than 100,000 Iraqi lives and counting, and 2 million refugees. Its benefits? The current Iraqi government operates secret torture facilities in Baghdad. WikiLeaks cables have revealed that beatings and torture of detainees in Iraq — often handed over by US forces — is routine. Plus ça change.

The non-violent demonstrations in Egypt cost more than 300 lives, nearly all as a result of assaults by security forces or pro-Mubarak thugs.

As Rundle noted, the Right struggle, but usually fail, to tear themselves from viewing everything through the prism of Israel. On that, however, it is interesting to note that on Saturday, our own Julie Bishop produced a statement declaring “the people of Egypt have an historic opportunity to move to an open and democratic system of government”. No mention of the “only democracy in the region”. But Tony Abbott put out a statement on Saturday afternoon declaring that it was “vital that whichever new government emerges from this process respects the rights of all Egyptians, including minorities such as the Copts, and maintains the peace settlement with Israel.”

More grist for Greg Sheridan’s obsessive campaign against Bishop.

Israel aligned itself with Saudi Arabia and other Arab dictatorships to demand that the United States ease off pressuring Mubarak, in order to keep the ageing dictator in power. It was a shameful moment in Israeli history — one of many occasioned by the appalling government of Benjamin Netanyahu and his extremist allies.

Another conservative Brit, Brendan O’Neill, managed to top everyone else in demonstrating how it’s all about Israel, in another piece in The Australian today. “One of the most striking things about the uprising in Egypt,” opined O’Neill, “was the lack of pro-Palestine placards.”

I’m not making that up — O’Neill actually said that. He wasn’t struck by the remarkable discipline and resilience of the Egyptian protesters, or the triumph of non-violent protest, or the gross mishandling of the revolution by Obama administration, or the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, or of the Egyptian army. He wasn’t even struck, thank goodness, by whether social media was or was not important, like lots of other commentators. No, it was the lack of Palestinian placards in an Egyptian uprising against a 30-year dictatorship.

The source of the right-wing dilemma over Egypt is the leaderless, truly democratic nature of the uprising that turned out Mubarak. It was a non-violent groundswell of popular anger at a regime that had systematically abused its population for decades. The usual themes that enable easy processing of events for the commentariat were absent. There was no foreign role, no intervention by US forces to give Washington ownership and the “Made in America” stamp of approval — that was reserved for the tear gas and shotgun shells used on protesters. There was no religious element that justified Islamophobes in demonising the uprising as a fundamentalist threat to stability — although they gave it a red-hot go. It was simply Egyptians demanding fair elections, demanding the right to speak out, demanding economic opportunity, demanding an end to monumental corruption, demanding that young men such as Khaled Said not end up tortured to death at the hands of the government’s thugs.

It says much more about conservative commentators than about the Arab world that that has sent them into such an addled state.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey