Never the Same AgainFebruary 14th, 2011
William Hague’s statement to Parliament today was pretty flat. It didn’t really capture the significance of the Nile Revolution for the future of the Middle East, and perhaps the wider world. Maybe one reason for the flatness is that the old words that were used to discuss Middle Eastern politics – like ‘stability’ or ‘reform’ or even ‘peace process’ when there isn’t one – are a hindrance not a help.
The truth is that no one saw this coming – myself included. If you had sat down in December and listed the local conditions – inefficient rule without legitimacy in an educated and historic country of globally connected citizens – you would have seen the dam was more than ready to burst. You could probably say the same for the time when I was meeting Mubarak and listening to him at conferences and summits. I saw the figures of the youth bulge, read statistics about economic underperformance, felt the history, questioned the repression mixed with cosmopolitan openness. But when I addressed 400 students at Cairo University in 2008 the questions were about British foreign policy more than about the future of Egypt. We knew the status quo couldn’t last…but people had been saying that for some time.
The House of Commons is hardly at its best discussing events over which we have little influence. And the biggest thing about the Egyptian revolution, that should inject a lot of humility, is that it happened without any instigation from the West. It was home made. As Tom Friedman has written in the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/13/opinion/13-friedman-Web-cairo.html?_r=1&ref=columnists) that is the most empowering and important and potentially positive thing of all. The people made this revolution; they aren’t going to want anyone to take away its gains.
Here are 6 other quick reflections.
1. “The fear is gone”. This is a quote I read somewhere from a demonstrator. This was a victory for Young Egypt and Young Egyptians. The words I remember from the TV interviews are frustration, anger, despair, across all classes. How they are incorporated into politics – on the barren land of thirty years of one party rule – is the key to the future. And it will be fantastically difficult since pluralism means they should now break into different parties, groups etc.
2. The revolution was made above all from a legitimacy crisis of the Mubarak regime. This was a cry of political pain not economic woe – despite 40 per cent of the population living on less than $2 a day. The forces for a global and connected world can be held back, but eventually prevail. TV, mobile phones, social media and the internet – the global forces of mass communication – are potent weapons to expose the indefensible and the unaccountable. It just tells people when they are being fed lies – like the doctored photograph of the Mubarak/Obama summit.
3. The revolution fed on a sense of Egypt having been run down. One of the most striking things for me as Foreign Secretary in grappling with the Middle East was the absence of decisive Arab leadership in the Arab world. As Hussein Agha wrote in the Washington Post at the weekend (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/02/11/AR2011021102617.html ), the leader of the Arab world is Al Jazeera (whatever President Ahmedinejad might hope). A 7000 year old civilisation in Egypt was bigger and better than Mubarak had allowed it to become. The West bears some responsibility for this – for example in the way the Saudi sponsored Arab Peace Initiative was all but ignored in 2002. But the problem was home grown.
4. Mubarak had become a roadblock to resolution of the Palestinian issue. His positioning had fed cynicism in his own country about the idea of a negotiated settlement. Rather than him being Israel’s bulwark against extremism and for coexistence, he was doing them no favours in the combination of domestic stagnation and international diplomatic quiescence.
5. The peacefulness of the protest was remarkable and a great hope for the future. It came straight from the Gandhi/King playbook. And they knew that with a global audience there was no room for slip ups. I have just heard from a call with someone who had spoken in Tahrir Square that on one of the streets leading from the square is Cairo’s largest synagogue – and not a stone was touched. That is a degree of respect that deserves respect in return.
6. There is nothing western about the idea of individual rights and accountable government. The tide of change that seemed to stop in the middle east was only pausing. I tried to address this in January 2008 in the Aung San Suu Kii Lecture in Oxford. (http://www.labour.org.uk/aung_san_suu_kyi_lecture)
Obviously I don’t know what is going to happen next. But there will be many more nexts – winds of change and all that. My instinct is that, paradoxically perhaps for us, the monarchies of the Arab world have greater claims to legitimacy amongst their own population than the autocracies, and may have greater space to digest the implications and plan change in their own countries. But a lot depends on Egypt. The army have played a smart game so far. So have the demonstrators. (And I thought it was revealing to see the Muslim Brotherhood telling Iran to buzz off – they know that any sense of outside interference is a killer). A strong democracy in Egypt will be an extraordinary leader of the Arab world, and could reshape global politics in a very positive way.