Stephen Day: Tunis, Cairo, where next? A turning point in history

Click to follow

The events that began in Tunisia on 14 January may well prove to be one of those great turning points in world history. While eyes are glued to events in Egypt, let us not forget that the lead was taken by Tunisia, now advancing steadily towards a new, stable future. Why Tunisia, why Egypt and where will it go next?

The Tunisian uprising was the first global revolution ascribable to the internet, engaging Tunisians around the world. The people of this most advanced of Arab nations are its principal resource; highly educated, trilingual in Arabic, French and English, they occupy senior positions in finance and the professions. A group of such people left their Canary Wharf offices in London to show support for family and friends in their capital, Tunis, and formed a group to engage in the building of a democratic, prosperous future.

They searched for a word to encapsulate the origins and nature of the upheaval across the Islamic world and chose karama, denoting dignity, honour, what Milton called "modest pride" – one of God's attributes.

The peoples of what is now the Middle East inherit glorious histories, but have suffered centuries of decline and humiliation at the hands of outsiders. The changes present huge challenges to Western and Israeli governments. The three pillars of imperial strategy – bombing, bribery and bluff – have collapsed, while the creations of those policies, the corrupt, geriatric rulers facing exile, are liabilities, not assets. Iran rides high, thanks to our dispatch of its neighbouring enemies; public hostility towards Western governments has never been more intense; a nuclear exchange is a real possibility; extremists flourish.

An exiled politician and I chatted at Gatwick as he waited to fly home after 22 years of exile. He fixed me with an Ancient Mariner glare: "The actions of your government have made you British hated by every Arab." I have a large number of Arab friends, but I knew what he meant. Representing earlier British governments was a tough hand to play.

Thank heavens, at this crucial stage of history, both we and the Americans have new governments capable of reacting to change as well as preaching it. The flight of William Hague to Tunis and beyond was an inspired move, putting us for once on the right side of the argument and demonstrating a willingness to act as partner rather than aging nanny. President Obama has brilliantly understood the mood on the Arab street. We have leaders expert in speaking to a people who value words, where language inspires.

Trapped by their own rhetoric, can the Israelis now confront the fact that few Arabs today want to drive Israel into the sea? They have long complained that Egypt is not a democracy, and should welcome last week's developments. Would a democratic Egypt want to devote its resources to another losing battle with Israel?

The people on Avenue Bourguiba and Tahrir Square are good, decent Muslim and Christian Arabs demanding what we all want – a decent life for their families, education for their children, a job and, above all, self-respect. How could letting them run their own country possibly be worse than what has gone before?

Stephen Day was head of the Foreign Office's Middle East Department, and an ambassador to Qatar and Tunisia