Oliver Miles: Egypt must find its own way without Western interference

Sunday 30 January 2011 01:00 GMT

Don't believe anybody who tells you they know what's going to happen next in the Middle East. What we have seen in Tunisia and Egypt amounts to a revolutionary situation. Revolutions are unpredictable. It seems likely that the regimes which have existed for a generation are finished, though even that is not certain, still less what will take their place. There are also disturbances in Yemen and Jordan, and ripples or more in other countries too. But a revolution, unlike a coup d'état or a military takeover, takes a least a number of days to reach the critical point and that has not happened elsewhere yet.

All these countries have serious problems. On the political side, populations are deprived of justice, fairness and freedom. There is no accountability. Bureaucracy and corruption make dealing with government at best a bad joke, at worst a nightmare. On the economic side, there is entrenched unemployment and underemployment; food prices are rising; physical resources such as fresh water are lacking. Worryingly, these are problems to which no one has easy answers. Many of these problems are shared but the impact varies from country to country. Some of the economic problems can be masked or even solved in those countries that have oil money.

Despite its reputation for instability, the Middle East has seen decades of stagnation. In Britain or America, governments look tired after a longish spell in power and are replaced. In the Middle East there is no such mechanism. Some autocrats have exercised unbridled power for 30 or 40 years with no change. Thanks to the media we hear a lot from individuals on the street who want this stagnation to end. It is encouraging to hear many voices very like the voices of protest in our own society, and it is possible to hope that they are looking for objectives we recognise as desirable – freedom, democracy, justice.

We have been conditioned to look at the Middle East through the prism of the global "war on terror". It is encouraging that the voices we are now hearing make that concept irrelevant. Voices of men and women, of Christians and Muslims; scarcely a sign of political extremism dressed up as Islam, as we have all been conditioned to expect.

What should our governments be doing, Britain, America, the "West"? First, we should not delude ourselves that we can control events. Second, we should remind those in the region who do delude themselves that the responsibility for what happens belongs to them. Given the history of largely ineffectual interference in the Middle East by other countries including our own, it is not surprising that some Egyptian voices demand at one moment that we recognise their right to control their own fate, and at the next moment – for example – that we make their President resign. It is good to hear British ministers and the British ambassador sticking to the position that while we have strong views on the democratic values involved, we have neither the right nor the power to determine the outcome.

Oliver Miles has served extensively as a diplomat in the Middle East and North Africa

The analysts' views

"This is the Arab world's Berlin moment. The authoritarian wall has fallen – and that's regardless of whether Mubarak survives or not. The barrier of fear has been removed. It is really the beginning of the end of the status quo in the region. The introduction of the military speaks volumes about the failure of the police to suppress the protesters. We are witnessing the beginning of a new era."

Fawaz Gerges, Professor of Middle Eastern politics at the LSE

"There is currently a sort of earthquake, nothing less. It started in Tunisia; it is continuing in Egypt. The political situation in Lebanon is, in any case, very complicated; in Yemen there have already been two straight days of protests that have their own local peculiarities It cannot be said that these are just isolated incidents. There is something broader which can be termed the Tunisia or al-Jazeera effect."

Yoram Meital, Middle East analyst

"Be careful what you wish for – you may get something worse. The biggest geopolitical nightmare for Israel is to have the most populous Arab country on its doorstep with political instability. Believe me, it changes the whole balance of the Middle East. It makes everything else look very simple because suddenly we go back 30 years."

Kishore Mahbubani, Dean and professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore

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