By Mark Wallace
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Complex problems always attract people who think they have a simple solution. The bitter experience of decades teaches us that there is no easy answer to the issues of the Middle East – despite the seductive claims of isolationists, Islamists and secular militarists.
Inaction is a policy choice, too, of course, and brings its own consequences. As hundreds are slaughtered in Egypt for protesting against a military coup, London and Washington's reluctance to say anything at all is interpreted on the streets of Cairo and in the generals' barracks as an implicit endorsement of the shooting and gassing of civilians. The EU's decision to send Cathy Ashton evidently hasn't exactly helped matters, either.
There is no side in the Egyptian crisis that we should be backing. On one side, Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood are not only incompetent but dangerous. On the other, the military leaders who have seized power are currently providing a gory demonstration that they share the very same qualities, albeit in pursuit of different ends.
Similarly, neither side has an exclusive claim to popularity. The Brotherhood triumphed in the Presidential election with the support of large numbers of real voters. The protests which precipitated the coup were also a mass movement.
The grim fact is that Egypt is being bled by a struggle between two malicious forces: military-backed secular dictatorship and bigoted, theocratic Islamism.
It isn't a unique situation, either. American police forces regularly release photomontages of crystal meth addicts' mugshots showing their appearance ten years ago, five years ago and today.
I get a horrible feeling that Turkey, Egypt and Pakistan provide a similar montage of nations at different stages of the same road to ruin, their teeth falling out and their skin shrivelling as a common problem destroys their body politic.
Hoping to stave off radical islamist movements by implementing Western-backed oppression, allowing secular principles to be expressed in the form of snipers' bullets and tear gas canisters, is an approach which is doomed to fail. The threat of islamism grows stronger as a result, and the ultimate goal of secular democracy is discredited by association with murder and thuggery.
I'd be a liar if I pretended to have a solution to Egypt's bloodstained nightmare – and I'd suspect anyone who does make such a claim at this stage is a liar, too. What I do believe is that when people are being murdered for opposing the overthrow of an elected government the West should not be sending a message of tacit consent – or, even worse, continuing to fund the very army which is carrying out the slaughter.