MICHAEL PORTILLO: ‘I want to put a moral issue to you. If you feel what might come instead of Mubarak might be worse, for them, for Israel, for us, would it be the right thing to crush [the democracy movement in Egypt]?’
DAVID CESARANI: ‘That is certainly a moral dilemma… If you were to take the wholly pragmatic view, the expedient view of those sitting in the White House and possibly here in Whitehall, stability, the outcome of a Tiananmen Square-style crackdown is desirable and is predictable. If you allow this popular, democratic movement to run unchecked you cannot predict what’s going to happen. But you can predict probably that after a short, sharp massive clampdown, at huge human cost, there will be a sullen stability.’
That is an exchange between former Conservative minister Michael Portillo and the distinguished historian and liberal intellectual David Cesarani on the BBC’s Moral Maze this week in which Cesarani explains why the butchery of the protestors in Tahrir Square may be morally justified. It’s true that Cesarani does not explicitly say, ‘Send in the tanks’. But he leaves no one in any doubt as to what he thinks is morally acceptable and may be pragmatically necessary. He’s not simply suggesting that officials in Washington or London might advocate such a policy. He himself believes that ‘a Tianamen Square-style crackdown’ might be the lesser of ‘two evils’ (the other evil being the Muslim Brotherhood gaining power). Let us not forget that in Beijing the original ‘Tiananmen Square-style crackdown’ probably left some 400 to 500 people dead (even the Chinese government admitted that 200 had lost their lives on the night that tanks and troops cleared the Square). So to suggest that it might be acceptable to send in the tanks against the tens of thousands of protestors in Tahrir Square and to crush their aspirations for freedom is in effect to make a moral case for mass murder.
Cesarani is clearly uncomfortable with the argument. But not so uncomfortable as to be unwilling to reveal it to the nation. What is particularly remarkable is that Portillo did not ask Cesarani whether he supported a ‘Tiananmen Square-style crackdown’. Cesarani himself introduced that analogy into the exchange. Portillo, while disagreeing with Cesarani’s stance, calls it ‘extraordinarily brave’. I call it viscerally shocking. But, then again, Cesarani is only expressing explicitly what for decades has implicitly been the policy ‘of those sitting in the White House and… here in Whitehall’.
Later on in the programme, we hear from Daniel Johnson, editor of Standpoint magazine, a self-described ‘neo-conservative’ and a vigorous supporter of the Iraq war, as well as of military action against Iran. When it comes to Egypt, however, the people of Egypt are forbidden, in his eyes, from using the mildest of violence to rid themselves of a brutal dictator and his ‘authoritarian… but pro-Western regime’. ‘I think Mubarak will go’, Johnson explains, ‘but I think he should not be forced out at the point of a gun.’ For Johnson, it is legitimate for British and US troops to inflict in Iraq and elsewhere violence far worse than anything we have seen, or will see, in Cairo. But when it comes to ordinary people rising up themselves to demand freedom then violence becomes unacceptable. But that, again, is only to make explicit what has been implicit Western policy for decades.
(David Cesarani enters the discussion around 11 minutes into the programme, and the exchange quoted above begins at around 13 mins in, but the whole show is worth listening to. For those without access to the BBC’s iplayer, the programme will be repeated on BBC Radio 4, Saturday 5 February, 22.15. And in the interest of full disclosure: I am a Moral Maze panelist. I was not on the programme this week, but will be next week.)