April 26, 2012

Egyptian Gas

Last week’s news that Egypt has cancelled its agreement to sell gas to Israel sounds disturbing. But is it? Forgive my cynicism, but are we sure this isn’t just about business? Contracts get cancelled all the time, perhaps more in the USA than Europe, and often it is simply a business gambit to get more money. I have just been reading Daniel Yergin’s book, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, & Power. It was written in 1991 and won the Pulitzer Prize the following year, so it is hardly the last word on the subject. But it was such a fascinating and instructive read. It and taught me so much about how the Two World Wars were won thanks to superior oil supplies. It reiterated how the post-war discovery of cheap easily accessible oil in the Arab world got the powers scrambling to get a piece of the action and to hell with anything else.

One message comes through loud and clear. No matter whether it is Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Kuwait, or whichever emirate you care to mention, the record shows that the producer states constantly cancelled contracts, engaged in brinkmanship, nationalized their resources, played one company and country off against the other, all to get a better deal and more money. That is the way they do things. That is how most capitalists everywhere do it. It is why diplomats are described as “whores who lie for their country”. It is just that the Arabs do it with such charm and dissimulation one simply ends up admiring their Chutzpah. And it is the absence of such roguish charm that is often why Israelis do not make so many friends. In the Free World a contract, in theory, is a contract. There are supposed to be transparent legal systems, even though anyone who thinks they are beyond corruption is living in cloud-cuckoo-land. Why are China and Russia supporting Syrian oppression, or Mugabe or Omar Bashar? It is not out of love, I assure you.

It could be for political purposes that Egypt is canceling the deal with Israel. The Egyptians, almost to a man and woman, hate Israel, hate the Peace Treaty, and enjoy nothing more than burning Israeli flags, as the most recent demonstrations in Cairo illustrate. But just maybe it is also true that the Mubarak cronies who negotiated the deal were taking huge cuts and bribes and kickbacks and feathered their own nests. And dare I say it, the same is probably true for the Israeli negotiators who made the deal. Anyone who thinks Israeli businessmen are as pure as the driven snow deserves to be sentenced to life in an igloo. But whereas Israel has a relatively open and democratic society, 90% of the Arab world does not.

When they think of the West, they think of immorality, imperialism, the forces that sustain repressive dictators who themselves often came to power as modernizers and secularists and then proceeded to torture, rape, and pillage their own citizens. The Arab world has been corrupted and dehumanized for so long that they have not progressed since the days in 1958, when in Iraq they tortured and mutilated their king and princes to death and dragged their bodies through the streets--or wait, 2011 and Gaddafi. The West used to do that as a matter of routine 500 years ago. Over time they learnt to torture in private rather than as public entertainment spectacles.

Since the only people who stood up to repressive regimes tended not so much to be the religious establishments, but ordinary lay religious Muslims, it is not surprising that popular support now flows in the direction of those religious antiestablishment movements--be they the Brotherhood, the Salafists, Hamas, or Hezbollah--who offer the only rays of hope to the poor, unemployed, and disenfranchised of the Muslim world. Now is their time to see if they can do a better job. The beauty of any kind of democracy, however distorted or limited, is that if they fail, someone else may get a chance to do better.

But in the meantime they want to win elections, if there are any. And how do you do a George Galloway? The easiest way is by appealing to the very lowest and crudest levels of voter mentality, to the most jingoistic and prejudiced. That, of course, is what happens in the UK, let alone Cairo. And I guess that’s how Sarkozy hopes to get back in in France. And sadly, it happens in Israel, where the right wing is pushing to recognize more and more settlements and Netanyahu is giving in because it helps him get elected. But we also know, thank goodness, that as people have more to lose they are much more circumspect; even Oil Sheiks soon learn which side their pita is buttered on.

Wherever you look, dictatorship or democracy, it is clear that lobbies, money, and moneyed interests--be they of the Left or the Right--play the major role in winning elections. But it is also true that “it’s the economy, stupid” that decides how the votes go.

That is why, sad as I am at the anti-Israeli rhetoric and doubtless worse is to come, it is inevitable. If hatred has been fed to so many for so long, it cannot change overnight. If you play with people’s minds and souls, a quick session with a shrink will change as little as a quick dip in the Mikvah. So let us not overreact. Change that brings progress always takes time. Meanwhile, Please God, the Mediterranean will soon provide as much gas and oil as Israel could possibly want.

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