The scene is a health club in Cairo, on the afternoon of Sept. 24, 2002. The TV sets are tuned to Al Jazeera and BBC, with the volume turned off. Suddenly everyone in the room stops their treadmills and cross-trainers and someone turns up the volume. In the midst of a debate over Iraq in the British House of Commons, Prime Minister Tony Blair makes a dramatic statement. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, says Blair, has the capability to launch an attack with chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes.
It isn't difficult to figure out that most of the people at this Cairo health club have their doubts over the growing accusations against Iraq. On the other hand, this is none other than the British prime minister speaking in the cathedral of parliamentary democracy. He might be tempted to lie about a wiretapping affair or a scandal over political contributions, but not on a matter of war and peace. The health club members anxiously watch the drama in London unfold. "I am slowly beginning to have doubts about my doubts," says one man.
The legacy of the British Empire in the Arab world has had serious repercussions for British politicians. Lord Kitchener's suppression of the Mahdi rebellion in Sudan in 1898, Britain's occupation of Iraq in the 1920s and its bombing of Egypt during the 1956 Suez crisis may be footnotes in European history books, but they occupy a more prominent place in the collective memory of Arabs. The Germans may enjoy an advantage in the Middle East because they have no colonial past in the region, but Britain's history in the Middle East makes the country suspect to many Arabs today.
If there was ever a prime minister who seemed to be on the right path in the Middle East, it was Tony Blair earlier in his career. He exuded youthful enthusiasm, an abstract but not insignificant advantage in a part of the world where almost half of the population is younger than 20 -- though generally ruled by old men, then and today. On the eve of the Iraq war, Saddam Hussein was 65, Palestinian Prime Minister Yasser Arafat was 73, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was 74 and, Abdelmoneim Emara, the Egyptian minister of youth was 65.
The shock of Sept. 11 also gripped Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad, where many believed that the West's campaign against the Taliban was a necessary evil, and where the noble tone of lay preacher Tony Blair struck a chord among the nervous elites of the Arab world. Blair seemed far more committed than other Western leaders to a two-state solution in the Middle East, and he insisted that a resolution of this conflict would be a decisive step in the war against terrorism. No one spoke as convincingly about freedom, democracy and human rights as Tony Blair, and at the time there was no cynical aftertaste to his words. The war in Iraq had not yet begun.
A Fox in the Henhouse?
That was five years ago, and now Blair, after resigning as prime minister, will go to Jerusalem as special envoy of the group known as the Middle East Quartet (which is comprised of the United Nations, the United States, Russia and the European Union). According to a senior US government official, the appointment will be officially announced on Wednesday. Is a fox being put in charge of the henhouse? Is Blair a statesman who, after the debacle in Iraq, is now considering his place in the history books? Or is he a talented intermediary who intends to pick up the pieces where former US President Bill Clinton failed in 2002?
One of the supposed pearls of wisdom of the Middle East is that only radicals can make peace, because moderates are too weak to convince their own people to make the necessary concessions. By this token, only the hawkish Ariel Sharon was capable of withdrawing from the Gaza Strip, and only Hamas could ever sign an agreement that guarantees the Palestinian refugees financial compensation instead of the right of return to Israel. If this argument was true, Tony Blair would be an ideal prince of peace. Like his blood brother, US President George W. Bush, Blair has consistently honed the reputation of someone who sticks to his guns. "Hand on heart, I did what I thought was right," he said at his farewell speech in May. And as if this hadn't been clear enough, he added: "I may have been wrong, but believe one thing if nothing else, I did what I thought was right for our country."
In truth, Blair the rhetorical absolutist always remained a proponent of realpolitik, not just in the Northern Ireland negotiations, but also in the Arab world, where two decisions unrelated to Iraq have shaped his image. In 2003, after the Iraq war had begun, Blair negotiated a deal with Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi that rewarded Libya for abandoning its weapons of mass destruction by accepting it back into the international community. Blair visited Gadhafi in his desert tent during his farewell tour through Africa. But despite his achievements, Arab democrats have no illusions about Blair's legacy. "I believe he is committed to a just solution in Palestine," says Lebanese presidential candidate Shibli Mallat, "but I can no longer accept him as a champion of democracy and human rights."
First the Banker, Now the Preacher
In December, Blair stopped the investigation of an arms deal between British weapons manufacturer BAE Systems and Saudi Arabia. The British media had accused BAE of paying millions in bribes to Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Blair's argument that this type of investigation would have led to a "complete wreckage" of his country's strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia even irritated some in Saudi Arabia. "When it comes to setting an example of transparency and good government he is garbage," says human rights activist Ibrahim Mukaitib from the Saudi city of Dammam. "He placed himself in the shadow of the Americans. What should we expect from him in Palestine?"
Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary general, apparently would have preferred to send former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer as a negotiator to the Middle East, but Washington wanted Blair. Unoccupied for more than a year, the position of envoy isn't exactly something the statesmen of the world are squabbling over. Blair's predecessor, former World Bank President James Wolfensohn, was so exasperated with the job that he left it, and his suite in the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem, in April 2006.
And so the preacher follows the banker. Before the Iraq war Blair had the ear of many Arabs, but now he is more likely to merely hold the attention of Arab leaders. He will need both his enthusiasm and his talent for putting a positive spin on difficult situations. At the same time, Blair should be cautious with truths that later turn out to be untruths. It's the risk every preacher takes: That the congregation will ultimately take him at his word.