The revolution sweeping the Arab world poses some interesting questions for policy makers in the West, who must find new ways of making friends in the region rather than repeat the failed policies of the past.
Propping up autocratic regimes in the Middle East may have secured the West’s oil supplies for decades, but at what price today? Like our casino banking system, which for years gave us a false sense of prosperity, Western influence in the Middle East was an illusion that is coming to an end.
It was only made possible through repression exercised by proxy and, though some will argue that this is the way business has been conducted by governments from time immemorial, we are in the age of instant communication. Whether this is going to be a good thing or a bad thing in the long term, only time will tell, but in the meantime it seems to have made the usual way of conducting business unworkable, and only Hosni Mubarak doesn’t seem to realise this.
Well, perhaps not only Mubarak. It has been a worrying time for Israel, who has had in Mubarak a useful friend for the three decades he has been in power, and it really would like to maintain the status quo in the region.
Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, who after years of antagonising the West has ironically found himself back on almost friendly terms with Washington and London, has also taken a dim view of the Egyptian uprising. And well he might: after all, he has been in power since 1969. (Looking further afield, what will Cuba’s Raúl Castro be thinking? You can find what his brother Fidel thinks here, but you’ll have to scroll a long way down).
Rightwing commentators in the United States are having a field day blaming President Barack Obama for abandoning George W Bush’s so-called “freedom agenda”, but they are not being truthful. They would have us believe that Bush would have forcefully encouraged Mubarak to step down. Then why didn’t he when he could? Are Bush’s supporters calling for regime change in Saudi Arabia? Of course not.
What was Bush’s “freedom agenda” in any case? The invasion of Iraq was not designed to “liberate” the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein, but to stamp out a dictator who had once been backed by the West in its confrontation with Iran (yet another case study) but who had now become the focus for pan-Arab nationalism, as Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser was in the 1960s. And again, maintaining oil supplies was at the heart of US thinking.
Those who like me are sceptical of the American Right’s claims that Bush’s policies have been vindicated by what has happened in Tunisia and Egypt (and is about to happen elsewhere) might argue that regime change is more effective when it is carried out from within, by the people themselves, even if it takes years to come about.
The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt are proof, if any were needed, that, given time, the Iraqi people would have removed Saddam themselves. (Thatcher’s war over the Falklands may have precipitated Galtieri’s fall, but he was on his way out anyway: with the economy in a mess and inflation spiralling out of control, the people had already taken to the streets against the regime. An invasion of Argentina, however, would have galvanised even those who opposed the occupation of the Falklands against Britain).
As Egyptian blogger Alaa Abd El Fatah has pointed out, the Egyptian uprising shouldn’t have come as a surprise, as there have been strikes and demonstrations there since the Nineties over the Gulf War, IMF-imposed austerity programmes, torture and in support of Palestinian intifadas. It has taken time for these protests to evolve into today’s all-encompassing revolt, which is why it is unlikely the Egyptian people will accept anything other than sweeping changes to the way they have been governed – or misgoverned – for so long. But surely it is healthier that they have done this themselves rather than with help from a foreign power that is not seen, to put it mildly, to have the Arab world’s best interests at heart.
If we were still in the Cold War the West would almost certainly have blamed Moscow for the momentous events taking place in the Middle East. Interestingly, in the new world order they are unlikely to find anyone to blame but themselves; assuming they are still looking they would be hard-pressed to find any evidence linking Osama bin Laden or any other Islamist terrorist organisation to the revolutions.
The US and Britain are playing wait and see; that is the right approach. But don’t wait too long: this should be seen as an opportunity to put right the wrongs of the past, such as support for hated autocratic regimes, the oppression of the Palestinian people and the invasion of Iraq. There is a new generation in the Arab world that is hungry to embrace many Western values without abandoning their religious beliefs.
They are seizing their opportunity, and we should too.