Tunisia, Jordan, Yemen, Egypt...the arc of popular discontent continues to grow.
But it is the tumultuous scenes from Egypt this week, culminating in the running battles in many cities yesterday after Friday prayers, that highlight the volatility of the situation – and the dilemma for the United States and the rest of the Western world.
That such a dilemma exists at all, of course, is largely of our own making. We have long observed a double standard in relations with most Arab countries. We turned a blind eye to internal repression and stagnation, so long as the appearance of internal stability was preserved and the oil routes remained secure. The consequence was a chain of undemocratic regimes from North Africa to the Gulf, which enjoyed Western, primarily US and British, patronage. When, as in Iran, popular anger led to the overthrow of the pro-Western regime, we called foul and were surprised to be shunned. Leaving aside our differently lamentable treatment of Iraq, this is the state of affairs that persists pretty much to this day.
As demands for change reverberate further and further from Tunisia, the hypocrisy separating the West's words and deeds can no longer be sustained. But finding a new response is not easy in this fast-moving situation. France, although the former colonial power, conspicuously kept its distance from the events in Tunisia, wisely refusing asylum to its former protégé. The reticence of the United States has spoken volumes, as disturbances in Egypt have spread.
The instincts of the Obama administration pull it in conflicting directions. On the one hand, it is all in favour of democratic reform, especially democracy sprouting from the grass roots up. On the other, Egypt is a crucial ally in the region – a partner in Middle East peace, guardian of the Suez Canal, a beacon for other Arab countries – and allies need to be orderly and predictable. Here the forces of democracy and stability seem to be at odds. How much simpler it would be for the West to take a (negative) stand if the protests had been mounted in the name of fundamentalist Islam rather than in pursuit of elementary political and economic change.
There is a multitude of contradictions here. The copious amounts of US aid to Egypt, as the reward for supporting Middle East peace, may have had the perverse effect of reducing the pressure for domestic reform. America's neoconservatives, once such vocal champions of democracy in the region, have fallen strangely silent over these latest protests. And how rich an irony it was to hear Tony Blair – the man who so heedlessly helped to topple Saddam Hussein – speak yesterday of the need above all for stability in Egypt.
For the Arab countries, these are complicated, even revolutionary, times. As it is, the West has little choice but to watch and wait, while cautioning those who would cling to power against the sort of excesses that would exacerbate their plight. It is not for us to dictate the direction in which the people of these countries eventually decide to go. But it is in our interests to do nothing that would discredit, or make less likely, a democratic choice. As the broad participation in these protests has shown, it is by no means inevitable that militant anti-Western Islam will emerge the victor, and we should not assume the worst.
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