PAUL Well, fascinating things going on in the world. You've got Christchurch, of course- well, the tragedy, really, of Christchurch; the catastrophe – tragedy – of Japan; and then you have what's happening in the Middle East. It all started in Tunisia, and it grew. The Arab world is in flux. President Mubarak of Egypt is gone after those extraordinary few days of young-people power. And in Libya at the moment, Gaddafi is fighting to stay on. His storming of Benghazi has begun overnight. Even his French fighter jets have started flying over the country. The uprisings across the Middle East, and what about religion? They're not about Israel this time, they're not about death to America, but they're about democracy and jobs, even rubbish collection. And this week Bahrain went into lockdown with its government propped by troops by Saudi Arabia. And in Yemen – Yemen – at least 45 pro-democracy protesters were killed on Friday as tens of thousands of people demanded the president step down. So we welcome to our programme Tariq Ali, who is in New Zealand to deliver the 2011 Sir Douglas Robb's lectures at the University of Auckland. Tariq Ali was born in what's now Pakistan. He studied at the University of Punjab, and then he studied at Oxford, so he cuts the mustard. In the 1960s, he became a revolutionary icon, inspiring the Rolling Stones' Street Fighting Man and John Lennon's Power to the People. He's written over 30 books, he's an activist, he's a socialist, he's a filmmaker. Tariq Ali, welcome to the programme.
Good to be with you.
PAUL Leave aside Libya just for the moment – we'll get to Libya, of course – but what is happening in the Middle East? What is it about?
TARIQ It's about two things. It's firstly about people in the entire Arab world feeling that they don't need the despots who have been ruling over them for 20, 30, 40 years and wanting to get rid of them and not being able to get rid of them through democratic elections, deciding to take history by the scruff of its neck, marching out into the streets. And so we've had a process of what I would call national democratic revolution or upheavals still going in the Arab world, demanding change, demanding freedom and saying to the West, which has propped up these despots and dictators for most of the time, 'Enough. No more.'
PAUL Why now? Why not four years ago, you know, or two years ago?
TARIQ I think it's been triggered off. The events in Tunisia were very much triggered off by the Wall Street crash of 2008 and the ensuing economic crisis. Suddenly, unemployment tripled, and a large number of educated people found themselves without work, poured out into the streets, contrasting their lives with the lives of the elite, who ruled them and who are so blinded by greed to make more and more money that they can't see the conditions in which ordinary people live. Once it happened in Tunisia and they got rid of a dictator who Sarkozy was backing and offering help to to stay in power, the Egyptians said that they were going to come out, and they began to come out in more and more numbers. The repression didn't work, hundreds died, and finally Mubarak was toppled, but we still don't know how it's going to end in Egypt.
PAUL No, we do not. We could talk about that too, but it's fascinating for us in the West to see that the young people coming out aren't shouting, 'Death to Israel,' aren't shouting, 'Death to America,' aren't burning effigies of the American president; they want their own guys gone.
TARIQ They want their own guys gone.
PAUL They want jobs, they want prospects.
TARIQ But when the Americans were intervening in Egypt initially, when Hillary Clinton was saying Mubarak was family, when other Western leaders were backing Mubarak and Obama was not sure what they were going to do, there were lots of anti-American slogans. Granted it wasn't the dominant slogan, and 82% of Egyptians in an opinion poll said that they did not like the role that America was playing in their country. So this is a democratic uprising, but part of that includes being free again and not being ruled by the United States.
PAUL Can Islam tolerate democracy, really? As far as I know, it hasn't really worked anywhere within the Arab world, in the Islamic world – democracy – perhaps Indonesia, you could say.
TARIQ Well, no, it's-
PAUL Because people say, don't they, there was never a separation between church and state, therefore&
TARIQ I've always thought that was a lot of nonsense, actually. There's absolutely no reason why democracy shouldn't work in the Muslim world. The reason it hasn't is that often, including in Indonesia and in Pakistan on four separate occasions, the US has backed military coup 'd'etats to prevent democratic developments, and that led to clashes. But whenever democracy is permitted, you know, the three largest Islamic countries – Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan – people go out and vote, there are different political parties. The religious parties in Pakistan, for instance, have always got less than 10% of the vote. In Indonesia, you have a moderate religious party in power, as you do in Turkey. These are the equivalents of the Muslim-Christian democrats which you have in Europe. So I think there's nothing in Islamic thinking or in the thinking of these countries which indicates that people don't want to determine who rules them. They do just as much as they do in the West, and I think the turbulence we're seeing in the Middle East is the democracy will probably be more radical and offer real alternatives than the West offers today.
PAUL In the meantime, who's leading these revolutions through the Middle East at the moment? It's the young educated people, yes? And the social networks?
TARIQ I don't think that is an accurate assessment, actually. I think the young people with their Facebooks and Twitters are playing a part in it, but an overwhelming- I mean, in Egypt, in particular, there were nine to 10 million people out on to the streets, and they were everyone. Virtually every layer of Egyptian society was out there, including the very poor, who don't have mobile phones, who don't have computers, who don't know what Twitter is. They were heavily involved in getting rid of a despot who has wrecked their lives for 30 years.
PAUL Yeah. Well, where's it going to end? In the end, will the despots win? Or will people power be unstoppable, do you think?
TARIQ I think a lot will depend on what happens in Egypt. If in Egypt the democracy movement will succeed in having a new constitution which enshrines democratic freedoms and social rights – this is a very important part of the campaign – the right to work, the right to a free education, free health – this is part of the movement.
PAUL What's the attitude of the army going to be, though?
TARIQ The army will do what the Pentagon tells them, because the top commanders of the army have been help to the States. They are paid billions each year for their salaries and to keep their armies happy, so they will do what the Americans want, but the Americans cannot totally determine the situation, because just three days ago there was another huge demonstration in Egypt saying they want the military out.
PAUL Now let's talk about Libya just quickly because the deputy foreign minister was on television yesterday – bizarre performance saying, 'We will not enter Benghazi. We will not enter Benghazi – this is our assurance to the world. Send in the obvservers.' And last night Gaddafi's tanks entered Benghazi. The French overnight have fired on a military vehicle. What's going to happen in Libya?
TARIQ Well, I think a loss, and tragically, the Libyan upsurge ran out of steam. They were hoping that the military would split and some of it would come over to their side. Some did. A few pilots fled the land, but it wasn't enough to sway the thing. My own feeling about the Western intervention is that it's a disastrous intervention that will strengthen Libya. And, of course, the Libyan propaganda outfits are saying, you know, 'Who are these people to attack us. They were doing deals with us. We paying Sarkozy's election campaign money and the Brits money – all these sorts.'
PAUL But it's a United Nations initiative, this.
TARIQ Yeah, but, you know, let's face it. The United Nations does what the Security Council wants, and that's five or six powers, essentially dominated by the United States. The powers that disagree these days don't veto; they abstain. And four or five of them abstained.
PAUL Egypt again. You say Egypt will define, really, what happens. What do you think the Pentagon will tell the Egyptian army?
TARIQ Well, if they are sensible, they'll say, 'Keep out of politics.' But who knows what they will really say, but Egypt is key because if it stabilises into a radical democracy with its own constitution, with people allowed the right to vote, it's very likely that the initial governments could well be governments the US could do business with. But there are no guarantees of that once you permit democracy.
PAUL Are you optimistic about democracy through the Middle East?
TARIQ I'm very optimistic. I'm very excited. It hasn't happened yet, but the fact that the people are out on to the streets demanding it ends this notion that people in the Muslim world are zombies, unlike anyone else, that they don't want democracy, they don't want democratic rights, they don't want social freedom. So it's a time of hope.
PAUL Gee, maybe George Bush was right. I'm sorry to wind you up.
TARIQ Well, George Bush was right to kill a million Iraqis, create five million orphans in Iraq, wreck the social infrastructure of the country – I don't think so.
PAUL I was just winding you up.
TARIQ I know you were, but, you know, a million Iraqi dead is a very serious business.
PAUL Thank you, Tariq Ali, for coming on the show.