The Jasmine revolution in Tunisia, the Egyptian revolt, ongoing demands for more democracy and human rights in several other Arab states such as Yemen and Bahrain, the Algerian government’s decision to lift its state of emergency and the current uprising in Libya, the list is long.
Although no definitive new forms of government have yet been chosen in any of those countries and despite the fact that remnants of the old guard are still fighting to maintain their influence in Tunisia, Egypt and of course Libya, it is already clear that the rules of the game in that strategically crucial part of the world have changed. The pitfalls and opportunities offered by this situation are obvious to all the major world players outside of the region and jockeying for position has already begun.
Iran wasted no time in praising those it said were its Muslim brothers struggling to break free from Western domination, although Iranian authorities have been rather less keen to say anything since demonstrators took to the streets of Tehran and were promptly and forcefully dispersed with tear gas and police charges, thus revealing the self-contradictory nature of Iranian declarations for the whole world to see. Al-Qaida and their North African affiliates AQIM have also been quick to see the opportunities by issuing statements much to the same effect as those initially issued by Iran, and various more-or-less democratically-minded Religious groups such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood are also trying to sense which way the new wind is blowing in order to increase their say in events.
As for the countries concerned, spokesmen for the many factions in the various revolts as well as the populations in general have almost universally emphasized their intention to decide their future without outside influence. That is totally understandable given that they have lived under regimes which were installed by all kinds of pro-or-anti western interests for many years, but the outside world does exist and pressure as well as enticements for support from one side or another will grow inexorably.
The potential for an increase in Islamic influence faces a major threat however, and that threat is called the West. After a hesitant start, the West has placed itself firmly and behind any revolt that has looked like succeeding. That isn’t hypocrisy, it is merely a hard-headed, pragmatic and geopolitical strategy.
Western countries have supported their various allies with massive aid over the years, a good proportion of which has gone to beef up those countries’ military capability in an attempt to thwart Iraqi (at the time) and Iranian ambitions in the region. They have also been instrumental in the improvement of infrastructures and trade, although much remains to be done.
It is very tempting to give in to demands for intervention in order to get rid of Gaddafi, and criticism of the West’s alleged flip-flopping has been rife, but this is not the moment for rash actions.
The West is in the dual and ironic position of having played its role in the destiny of Arab countries to their detriment and of simultaneously being instrumental in their development. Despite the naysayers there are few moderates in those countries who would call for a total disengagement from the West. Their armies need western money to remain influential and they need to sell oil to the West. The young of these countries are much more inclined to espouse and want to emulate certain elements of western life.
This is a very delicate moment in world affairs. If the West manages to swap its now-discredited strong-arm tactics for concrete help and a more arm-in-arm stance towards the development of these countries it would stand every chance of creating enough support to persuade those who will engineer the change in Arab countries to reject the false promises of Islamic rule.
And by doing so the West will have finally overcome a major threat to its values and culture, just as it did by defeating Communism at the Berlin Wall.