Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)


28 FEBRUARY 2007

  Q60  Mr. Hamilton: At the moment, if I am not mistaken, Likud only has 14 seats in the Knesset. Is that right?

  Ms. Bar-Yaacov: At the moment, but the most recent poll that I read on Ynet, an Israeli internet service, said that it was going to get 31.

  Q61  Mr. Hamilton: That is still far short of a majority, though, is it not? It would need 61 for a majority.

  Ms. Bar-Yaacov: Yes, but it will get it. If you look at the composition of the parties, it will not have any problem forming a coalition.

  Q62  Mr. Hamilton: Finally, if we assume that within the next 12 months the likelihood is that the Olmert Government collapse and there are fresh elections and if, according to your analysis, Likud becomes the leading party with Netanyahu—who knows what will happen to the Labour party?—what does that say about the possibility for a future peace agreement with the Palestinians, assuming that a Government of national unity are formed and survive within the Palestinian Authority? Is not the real problem in Israel and the Palestinian territories the dire lack of any sort of leadership, and leadership towards a peace agreement? Should not the Israelis be looking beyond this, and thinking as the public thinks, that Iran is its main enemy. We know what President Ahmadinejad has been saying about Israel, so is it not time that Israel made peace with the Palestinians and Syrians, perhaps? It needs the leadership to do that.

  Ms. Bar-Yaacov: It would need the leadership and it does not have the leadership, so at the moment it (Israel) feels that it is alone and under menace from Syria, from Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the al-Aqsa brigades, and all the different militant groups as well as Iran. As you know, fear of Iran is certainly something that is dealt with all the time. The question is not so much whether Israel wants to make peace with the Palestinians because, as Simon said earlier, 75% of the population still wants a two-state solution; the question is how we get there. There is a tremendous lack of leadership.

    I will take you back a step. You mentioned Labour. Labour primaries are scheduled for 28 May. The key runners for the party are Peretz, the current Minister of Defence. If he wins, that is likely to split the party because a lot of people are very unhappy with his conduct; then you will see a split Labour, and you know what that means. The other two contenders are Ehud Barak, former chief of staff and former Prime Minister and Ami Ayalon former head of Shin Bet, the Israeli internal security service and author of the Ayalon-Nusseibeh peace principles; he is progressive and someone with vision.

    Barak also carried Israel to Camp David; hopefully lessons have been learned and next time he will do better. Will it (Labour) win the next election? That is unlikely, so in terms of a timetable you are looking at Labour getting its act together with a peace platform. Meanwhile, it is a question of containment and management. I do not think the national unity Government in Palestine will last more than six months, maximum a year. So you are looking at a whole set of steps to manage the situation—this is the optimistic view—before you move into a conflict resolution phase from a conflict management phase.

  Q63  Chairman: Did you want to say something, Rosemary?

  Dr. Hollis: Only that in a piece of work that I did with an Israeli colleague, looking at the spectrum of opinion among Israelis about a deal with the Palestinians, we came up with five different substantial views. I think you could divide the population similarly, with 75% wanting one or another version of a Palestinian state. But crucially not the same one. One of those versions involves the Palestinian state being more Jordan than it is Gaza. That is a hunk of the West Bank would be attached to Jordan, and Egypt would have to pick up the impossibility of the Gaza strip and helping it function somehow—that kind of thing.

    You can get the Israelis to hypothesise any number of solutions to their conflict with the Palestinians. I think it would need even more than a strong leader to galvanise them and deliver any one of those. It is not surprising therefore that they sometimes look to the Arabs to provide the strong leadership, and they look back fondly on when Sadat went to Jerusalem. If only an Arab leader would emerge that would make that kind of gesture. There can be no solution unless there is a cohesive effort with all the principal players involved: the United States, the Europeans backing the Arabs involved to back up rewards for Israel as a result of conceding on statehood, and on and on. If we are to wait for an Israeli leader to solve the problem, we can forget it.

  Chairman: Sir John Stanley will ask about the Israeli-Palestinian situation and then we will move on to the region and the British role.

  Q64  Sir John Stanley: Can we go for a moment from the theory of the peace process to the reality of the land process, because for 80-plus years it has always been about land and it still is, ultimately, about land? Can you tell us from the information that you have whether the process of settlement expansion, new housing developments, outpost creation, land transfers from Palestinian ownership into Israeli ownership and the squeezing out of Palestinians from East Jerusalem has been halted or whether it continues?

  Dr. Hollis: It continues. If you look at the territory on the ground including the barrier, the route it takes, the major highways—some with six lanes—that carve through the land with embankments on either side, the confiscations that have taken place to build and install Israel's security arrangements and then you consider the settlement expansion, which is pretty much the expansion of the main settlement blocks, and the arrangements that are being made in the neighbourhoods of Jerusalem that make nonsense of any kind of city life, it is understandable why the Palestinians wonder what will be left at the end of the day for them to call a state.

  Ms. Bar-Yaacov: There are 102 illegal outposts. Prime Minister Olmert has not dismantled one since he came to power. The Road Map calls for the halt of settlement expansion and the dismantling of illegal outposts. That is (Israel's obligation under) phase one of the Road Map. The Quartet goes on to demand certain conditions of the Palestinians, but I have not seen a demand made recently of the Israelis. I think that it is of utmost importance. You are talking about the policy of Her Majesty's Government. That is a parallel that is often made in the Arab world. Every day, I read op-ed pieces that are published across the Arab world, including Palestine, that say, "Why are demands only made of the Palestinians and not of Israel?" That (Road Map) is the plan on the table at the moment. There are 121 official settlements throughout the West Bank and 102 illegal outposts and construction within those continues, as Rosemary mentioned.

  Q65  Mr. Horam: I would like to look at the situation rather differently. How are the foreign policy initiatives of the British Government and Israel perceived by the Middle East?

  Dr. Bar-Yaacov: In Israel and Palestine?

  Mr. Horam: Yes.

  Ms. Bar-Yaacov: There is a mixed view. The troop withdrawal from Iraq is encouraging some of the more optimistic people in Palestine to think that the UK is breaking ranks with the US and that the Bush-Blair Catholic wedding is no longer so holy. That is an encouraging sign because the US is not liked by Palestinians. It is seen by the Palestinians as completely partial to Israel. Therefore, there is an opportunity here.

  Q66  Mr. Horam: Has the Bush-Blair theme been very damaging?

  Ms. Bar-Yaacov: It has been very damaging in the eyes of the Palestinians and the exact opposite in the eyes of Israelis. That is why I asked if you were talking about Israel and Palestine. In Israel, the press is full of reports of British academics making anti-semitic statements and boycotts and that goes on. There is a lot of that in the Israeli press, more so than one realises here. That is another angle of it. It is not just the politics; it is also attitude towards Israel, so the view is mixed.

  Dr. Hollis: Over the past decade, Blair's premiership has made a difference to informed Israelis' perceptions of Britain. They no longer assume that the Foreign Office is automatically on the side of the Arabs. What I would say, however, is that with their political instincts, they can work out just how much influence Blair has, and therefore the British Government have, to make a difference. He was riding on a high for the first few years, including through 9/11, when the Israelis felt that at last people outside would understand their circumstances. However, partly because Iraq has gone so badly, there is a perception that maybe the Brits are losers and maybe they are not so astute in the way in which they handle the region; maybe they fail to get anything terribly useful out of the relationship with the United States.

    On the Arab side, I personally found much more hostility than I ever used to have to endure, just by virtue of being British. Although I know that there is no question but that the Governments in the region will deal with visiting Members of Parliament and official representatives of Her Majesty's Government with absolute protocol and politeness, and will urge the British to understand their point of view and tailor policy to it, in civil society there is a level of contempt for the British now. It used to be possible to live beyond the Balfour declaration, although you were constantly reminded of it. Now there is a sense that the British are back with the new imperialists, carving up the region. There is a perception that the only reason to go into Iraq was for oil and the pursuit of material interests. There is absolutely no buy-in to the notion that British foreign policy is driven by values or the export of values. That is considered nonsense.

    In Egypt last year, I was asked by a little group of intellectuals and journalists to explain why Tony Blair had decided to take Britain into war in Iraq. After I had finished a 15 or 20-minute explanation—the best explanation that I could offer of exactly how all this came about—they trashed it completely and said, "Nonsense. It was not for that at all. It was for the oil and power, and Israel." Repairing Britain's image in the region or establishing any significant influence there will take a while.

    The last nail in the coffin was Lebanon last year. Government Ministers, including the Prime Minister, were not seen to be quick enough to lament the civilian loss of life. Never mind that they were correct that you cannot necessarily implement a UN resolution for a ceasefire immediately. To suggest that, because of that, there was nothing they could do was to give away the information that they really hoped that Hezbollah would take a beating.

  Q67  Mr. Horam: Do you agree with that assessment from Dr. Hollis?

  Ms. Bar-Yaacov: I think that the Government was quite seriously damaged by their position in Lebanon and by not calling for a ceasefire early on. That caused them tremendous damage. I think it varies: I was focusing on the positives earlier—on the withdrawal from Iraq rather than the decision to go to war in 2003, but the Palestinians are very wary. To reiterate what I said earlier, it is more about the closeness of the UK to the US and people's total lack of time and appreciation for US foreign policy.

  Mr. Horam: That is a pretty bleak assessment from both of you.

  Chairman: Before you ask another question, may I warn our witnesses that we are expecting a vote, or possibly two, at 12 minutes past Four? Could you ask your question quickly, John?

  Q68  Mr. Horam: If you were in Margaret Beckett's or Tony Blair's shoes, given what you both just said, what would you be doing?

  Dr. Hollis: About what?

  Mr. Horam: About Israel and Palestine.

  Ms. Bar-Yaacov: First and foremost, they should support the formation of a national unity Government and try to put themselves in the Palestinians' shoes, both those of Hamas and those of Abbas. They tried a certain policy with Abbas and it failed. Why did it fail? Why does Hamas have as much support as it does? They must come to terms with the fact that Hamas is there for the duration. Hamas is not going to go anywhere; it is part of the fabric of Palestinian society. So how do we work with it in order to stabilise Palestine, because a stable and prosperous Palestine is in the strategic interest not only of Israel, but of the whole region and the UK Government. The focus, first and foremost, should be on Gaza. Gaza is the flashpoint at the moment.

    In the West Bank, the Israelis are in control. I am not suggesting that that is a good thing. But it is under control to a certain extent. There was the raid into Nablus where Hamas is setting up an executive force (this week). But Gaza really should be the main focus and Gaza is pretty separate at the moment from the West Bank. We are talking about an economic plan, a political plan and a security plan and they should all go in tandem. The security situation is a key to everything so the question is how do you deal with security sector reform. How do you deal with the fact that you have two armed factions?

    Hamas's executive force is a force that the Interior Minister set up because it (the Hamas government) was not recognised and it wanted an independent force. It is an armed force of at least 6,000 men. You also have the Ezzedin al-Qassam, the military wing of Hamas, which is well armed and you have Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which is a faction that does not recognise the Mecca agreement and does not want to be part of the national unity Government. It is fully supported by Iran, with a philosophy that the more Israelis it can kill, the merrier. The question therefore is how you support the national unity government to be strong enough to clamp down on Palestinian Islamic Jihad and groups like that.

    You need to have a very broad agenda on the Palestinian front and to focus on how to revive the economy. This an urgent matter. Peter Gooderham spoke about the temporary international mechanism at length. The TIM gives money to employees. It is not an economy. It does not create jobs. It is a sort of SOS mechanism. You need to deal with the whole job creation issue. Then you have to deal with Israel. You have to make certain demands of Israel in order to make Israel a partner for the Palestinians to negotiate with. The starting point is the Road Map and the Arab initiative.

    There are a number of plans on the table to work with and, as Rosemary said, they are about reaching out to public opinion. The ideas of two-state solutions are worlds apart. What are the borders? You have to really invigorate the peace process with a lot more force: intellectual force and people on the ground. The people want peace. They do not quite know how to get there. The Israelis and the Palestinians are not going to get there alone. There is no way that they will get there alone. They need the UK Government's help and it is urgent.

  Dr. Hollis: Nomi has given us a huge long list of all the things that the British Government have got to do, but I do not think that the British Government can do all those things. I would also caution that the British Government have tended to help with security in the past and they may want to stop doing that.

  Chairman: Can I ask you to be patient with us? We will go and vote and then we will come straight back. I am not sure whether it is one or two votes; we hope that it is only one. If it is two it will take half an hour; if it is one it will take 15 minutes. The meeting is adjourned until then. We will be back as soon as possible.

    Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

  On resuming—

    Chairman: I apologise for the delay. We were told that there would be two votes, but then of course there were not. The Opposition obviously know much better than the Government what is going on.

  Dr. Hollis, you were in the middle of a reply when we adjourned. Please conclude what you were saying, and then I will bring in Dr. Bar-Yaacov too.

  Dr. Hollis: Basically, I was saying that, of the long list of things that need to be done and that Britain might do—the list that Nomi gave us—Britain ought to be careful about rushing in to do practical things to help in the way that we have done so far. Tremendous work was done by the British in helping the Palestinians to develop a prospective legal framework that structure the economy and that they could put on the negotiating table when they entered detailed negotiations with the Israelis. Ever since the beginning of Oslo, the Brits have helped with the training of Palestinian security personnel. As of the Gaza disengagement, they again sent a team to help with the training of Palestinian security personnel. It was the Brits who sent people to oversee the detention of Palestinians in Jericho who were wanted by the Israelis, after the siege of Arafat's headquarters.

    I was simply saying that the British, given their problematic reputation in the region today, had better be careful, in the ways that they help, that they do not end up appearing to be deputy to the jailer if you like, and facilitating the occupation rather than helping to end it. If that happens, then Brits will be in the firing line.

  Ms. Bar-Yaacov: I just want to clarify my answer to the question that John Horam posed to me, which was what were Her Majesty's Government to focus on? The United Kingdom is part of the EU, and the EU is part of the Quartet. It is very important to keep the Quartet as the main vehicle through which initiatives are funnelled. All the issues that I mentioned are very much the Quartet role. The UK should push these initiatives through the EU and ensure that everything that I said before is dealt with contemporaneously—I can go into details about the economic plans, security plans and peace plans. One of the mistakes that was made in the past within the Quartet was that the US dealt with security and the political process unilaterally, meaning that they acted without consulting or showing any regard for the EU, the United Nations and Russia. It is very important to work on those three heads together: on security; the economy, and the political process, all in tandem. Otherwise, they do not work. It is a very delicate issue—I fully agree with Rosemary on that—but these initiatives are very welcome and very urgent, and they should be pushed through the EU.

  Q69  Chairman: Can we move on? We have spent quite a lot of time on Israeli politics. Do you think that the Israeli foreign policy approach, given their fear about Iran, should involve a new initiative to the Syrians? We know that there have been secret talks going on between Israel and Syria for two years—that has just been revealed. Do you think that there is any mileage in an Israeli-Syrian leg of a comprehensive agreement with the Palestinians, or is that just impossible at the moment?

  Dr. Hollis: The Israelis must be careful that they do not hang themselves to dry, by getting into something that is part of a comprehensive scheme for engaging all the players in the region. As of yesterday, we know that the Americans are prepared to go to this round table meeting of all the major players about the situation in Iraq. That seems to be a positive development, because in Iraq, just as in Israel-Palestine, you probably will not get a solution unless all the stakeholders have got buy-in. Otherwise, you will leave a spoiler outside. So the reason to try to get Syria in the tent, on Iraq or on Israel-Palestine, or on one in order to get the other, is to stop Syria being spoilers from the outside. However, in order for such an approach to work, ideally not only the Americans, the British and the EU members will all be conscious of where they are trying to take matters and pulling in the same direction, but so will most of the regional players. The trouble for Israel is that the value of an Israeli-Syrian dialogue about their bilateral relationship is not very great unless it is part of a regional initiative or dynamic.

  Ms. Bar-Yaacov: Israel has nothing to lose by talking to Syria at the moment. Earlier this week, the Israeli Cabinet had a very long and detailed briefing about Syria, among other subjects, from the Israeli security agencies, at which the military intelligence held a very different view on Syria from that of Mossad, the external security service. Some members of the military intelligence service were of the view that Syria is interested in genuine peace negotiations with Israel, and that Israel should pursue that. The problem is that the Israeli Government is very weak at the moment, and a weak Government cannot afford to take that sort of step, so I do not think that it is going to happen.

  Q70  Sir John Stanley: Do you think that there are circumstances in which the Israelis could resume a shooting and bombing war in the Lebanon? If so, what would those circumstances be?

  Ms. Bar-Yaacov: It is highly unlikely that Israel will resume a war in Lebanon. The circumstances (which would lead to war) would be if Hezbollah were to launch attacks into the heart of Israel, which we know that it has the military capability to do with weapons such as the Zilzal, Fajr-3 and Fajr-5. At the moment, Hezbollah is concerned about asserting its power internally in Lebanon, and it is highly unlikely that it will launch an attack on Israel. Under no circumstances would Israel launch an unprovoked attack on Lebanon, so I do not think that that is going to happen any time soon.

  Q71  Chairman: Can we move on to some of the other regional players. Is the Mecca deal a sign of an ongoing struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for influence not just on Israel-Palestinian issues but on wider questions? Is the engagement of the Saudis to which you have referred part of a wider sense that the Sunni world has to assert itself, otherwise the Iranian influences will grow among Saudi's neighbours in the Gulf and elsewhere—

  Dr. Hollis: That is very much my view.

  Ms. Bar-Yaacov: I think that it is part of it, but I also think that they started playing a role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by coming up with a peace proposal, later known as the Arab initiative, in 2002. This role is not new; it is not just in the light of Iran's expanded nuclear power programme. Part of the picture is that they want to minimise the Iranian influence, but they also have a genuine interest in seeing peace and stability in the region.

  Dr. Hollis: In the mix, there are concerns about their own internal stability.

  Q72  Chairman: But that is also linked to what is going on in Iraq.

  Dr. Hollis: Exactly.

  Q73  Chairman: How many links are there between the internal Iraq conflict and the wider Middle East peace process? Is it impossible to get solutions to the wider issues while the ferment is going on and the situation is deteriorating in Iraq?

  Dr. Hollis: The only way to understand what is going on in the region is to take a 90-year chunk of history, and to look at the break-up of the Ottoman empire and the introduction of a state system. That was the first time that such a system had existed in the region. Prior to that it was millennia of empires and city states. In dividing up the Arab world into separate states and introducing the Jewish homeland, a competitive system was set up. Since then, the leaderships in the different Arab states have had to establish legitimacy and, naturally, given the nature of the system, have done so in a competitive manner with each other. Who is going to stand up to the imperialists and chuck out the British or the French? Who is going to be the better socialist? Who is going to be the better defender of the Arab cause against Israel or, indeed, against the Persians, which is something that Iraq was pushing for? Who is going to be the better Muslim or defender of Islam and the holy sites, and on and on?

    In that mix, there was an assumption that the Sunni would be on top—Sunni or secular, and that is very secular, as in Syria. The disintegration of Iraq has thrown the whole system, the whole mosaic, up in the air. Personally, I think that the struggle between the Israelis and the Palestinians can be understood as unfinished business of the state-building project that began in the 1920s. Now, because of Iraq and the potential for the collapse of Iraq as it has been for the last 90 years—87 years—you have all these issues back up for grabs. What is necessarily the logic of a certain split that more or less follows what the UN said in 1947 should be the split between Jews and Palestinians in Mandate Palestine, and on and on? So all these questions are now up in the air and if all the guys in the region are connecting them, I think perhaps we should.

  Q74  Mr. Keetch: I want to follow on from that, Dr. Hollis, because that is a fascinating insight, particularly on Iraq. Specifically on Iraq, earlier you heard the Foreign Office people tell us that there were direct links of Syrian and Iranian influence with insurgents in the south and throughout Iraq, but they were not quite sure whether that was sanctioned by the Tehran Government or not. What is your assessment of that? Do you believe that there is military support, if you like, for the insurgents? Do you believe that they are supported by the Tehran Government or not?

  Dr. Hollis: A couple of things—first, I have been to Iran a number of times, including twice last year, and am fascinated by the Iranian-Iraqi connection. You would have to say that the situation in the 1990s—when there was very limited coming and going, except smuggling, on the Iraq-Iran border—was more abnormal than the situation after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's Government. In other words, normality on that border should involve a lot of interchange, with trade and family connections. There is, after all, a minority of Arabs in south western Iran, who are not considered as elite as Persians in the Iranian context. When the Iraqis, especially Sunni Iraqis, want to be rude about fellow Iraqis, and you hear this in Jordan and Saudi as well, they say, "They've got a touch of the Persians about them." They are going back to the Safavid empire, which was a Persian empire encompassing Iraq. So there is this mix, this cross-over of the populations and their religious identities. In that situation, I do not think that you can draw a line, separate the two and say that they have no business in each other's affairs.

    Secondly, the Iranian Government are made up of a number of power centres—I would say not unlike the US Government. You do not have the US Government on board if you only have the White House and not Capitol Hill: we know about the rivalries between the CIA and the State Department, and so on. Iran has something akin to that. The only major distinction in political science terms is, of course, that a cleric is ultimately in charge.

    Imagine the investigation into the Iran-Contra affair to find out exactly who was doing what from inside the White House. I think that that level of investigation with the Iranians will probably be a luxury that we will not have. In the circumstances, it sounded pretty encouraging that the British Government were taking on the issue and discussing it, among other things, directly with the Iranians.

  Q75  Chairman: May I throw in the quote from the Prime Minister about the "arc of extremism" in the Middle East? He seems to group together the Sunnis, Shi'as and others. Do you think that that is a helpful concept?

  Dr. Hollis: Only for about five seconds. It just does not take you very far. It simplifies the issue far too much.

  Ms. Bar-Yaacov: May I add one thing? Governments—not just this one—often make the mistake of lumping everybody in one box. To return to an earlier discussion, that is one of the mistakes made by Israel. Very few people distinguish between Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the al-Aqsa forces and numerous other groups. The lack of distinction is extremely unhelpful. It is important to scrutinise separately every group that commits violent acts.

  Chairman: We now move on to questions about Egypt.

  Q76  Mr. Purchase: The west, broadly speaking, has regarded Egypt as a key font of information, and even wisdom, on Middle East affairs for many years. Unsurprisingly, when the west looks clearly at Egypt, it sees that it is not an entirely democratic state. It has encouraged, and at times worked quite hard, to bring about a more democratic, open and transparent society—to make it more like ours, so we think. It has not been tremendously successful by any measure and the continuing difficulties with the Muslim Brotherhood, which was started in the 1920s, have not made things any easier. Do you think that, by and large, the west's quest for an open and more democratic Egypt has borne any fruit at all? Or should we just leave the Egyptians to get on with it?

  Dr. Hollis: I think it is worth noting that the European Union, through its neighbourhood policy, and before that, the Barcelona declaration, on which it is built, has had a complex and multifaceted reform initiative under way. The Americans launched their broader Middle East initiative as well. The Department for International Development moved from concentrating on Africa and poverty alleviation to work on the Middle East and has some theories about how corruption can interfere with development. The Foreign Office has been more straightforward with its democracy initiative. I understand that, with the arrival of new Labour, the Foreign Office stopped talking about good governance and started talking about democracy. It was more up front about that.

    With all those initiatives, there is the problem that the westerners, as you have called us all, have not quite made up their minds about how crucial democracy is to economic development, or whether Government initiatives can really make a difference at a grass-roots level. Almost by definition, it is inappropriate to the good that you are selling. If you are selling democracy, you do not go and do it to people. In those circumstances, the Egyptian Government have put up a very sophisticated resistance to all efforts to "democratise" them. The lack of real conviction that it would serve their needs and serve the needs of stability in the region is one reason why not much progress has been made.

  Q77  Mr. Purchase: What would you to say to those who would encourage totally open elections? If the Muslim Brotherhood stood in its own name, with its own party and its own views, and got into government in Egypt, which would not be impossible, what would you say as an adviser to western Governments about our relations with Egypt?

  Dr. Hollis: You are suggesting a repeat of what happened in Algeria when the French, on behalf of the west, decided: "Enough". They did not like the idea of Islamists in power. I think that there is much to be said for exposure to power as a more effective way of changing radicals than excluding them from power, which increases radicalisation.

    The recipe for Egypt is probably more of some of what you have had so far. The Muslim Brotherhood did very well in all the seats that it went for when it ran in the last parliamentary elections. It contrasts very well with the Government in terms of corruption: the Government were found to be guilty of brutality and paying bribes to get people to vote in the elections. Because of the corruption, there is enormous cynicism among the Egyptian population that any of this means anything. There is a huge perception that the Government are corrupt, but that does not mean that the state is discredited, or that there is a love affair with Islamism. A version of democracy or reform that brings such opposition into the system but does not overthrow the system overnight and introduce an Islamist Government, which I do not think will happen anyway, would be a more interesting test of the questions that you are asking than one extreme or the other.

  Q78  Mr. Purchase: At another level, the Egyptian Government clearly believe that the Muslim Brotherhood is a real threat to national security and that its influence spreads far and wide. If you were seeking a fifth or sixth term as president in the belief that the Brotherhood was a growing threat, not only to your power but to national security, how would you deal with that? Do you believe that the Brotherhood is a threat to Egyptian national security?

  Dr. Hollis: The Egyptians sometimes describe their state as a pharaonic state: it is all pervasive. Egyptians therefore have great difficulty in getting their heads around the idea of progressive reform. There is a sense that everything is forbidden except what is permitted and that you are therefore most likely to be breaking some law just by leading an ordinary life. The authorities will turn a blind eye, however, in the realisation that if they need to arrest you for something on you, they probably can. You know that, and they know that you know that, so there is a kind of psychological game going on.

    Egyptians have enormous difficulty describing to the likes of me how you would effect change. On freedom of the press, for example, you might say, "Reverse the system. Let's permit everything except what is forbidden when it comes to the press." That is a very exciting idea. However, the Government would interpret that as removing the finger from the dyke, because you have will have demonstrated that in one area at least you could operate in that way and the whole system would not come down. For fear of experimentation that could demonstrate that the state does not need to be as all-pervasive, they are not having any experimentation. Up against that, I simply do not know what to advise; I do not think that you can make much change from the outside.

  Q79  Mr. Purchase: Given that analysis, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood is not that surprising, and I broadly agree with you. What is the impact across the Islamic movement of the growing strength of the Brotherhood, with Hamas and others? Do you see them as an inspiration, as giving support or assistance to the growing Islamic movement? Are they a major influence?

  Dr. Hollis: The Egyptian Islamic heritage has been an inspiration across the region, and it is considered that scholars in Egypt and the scholarly tradition there of Islamic teaching are looked to for authority and have been for hundreds of years, and the last 100 years in particular.

    I suppose I have just introduced a parallel for myself with Nasser. He was an inspiration in the region for Arab nationalism. Whether that meant that you were going to conduct your nationalist campaign on your own behalf or on behalf of Egypt—I suspect it would be on your own behalf. It is an inspiration to Islamist movements in the absence of any other mechanisms for opposition, but if you think that you can introduce a secular opposition in any of the countries of the region it is too late. So you either accept a version of Islam in your opposition movements or you do not have more democracy.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2007
Prepared 13 August 2007