Thursday, 27 January 2011

Egypt and revolt in the Arab world - sometimes it's better the devil you know.

First Tunisia and now Egypt.  Demonstrators forced a change of government in Tunis and now President Mubarak’s regime is being challenged in Cairo, prompting hopes that a democratic revolution could sweep North Africa and the Middle East.

The usual parallels are being drawn: the fall of communism in 1989 and the so-called ‘colour revolutions’ in parts of the former Soviet Union and the Balkans.  The media has already dubbed the Tunisian uprising the ‘Jasmine Revolution’.

The British government, in the guise of Foreign Secretary William Hague, threw its lot in with the demonstrators in Egypt yesterday.  On the FCO website he urges the authorities in Cairo to “listen to the concerns of those demonstrating” and respect freedom of speech.

It's difficult to give out a substantially different message, but the overall tone is suitably cautious. Hague is careful to urge restraint from both sides.

Cairo is not Tunis.  Egypt is the largest Arab state and has often acted as a bulwark of stability in a turbulent Middle East.  The only organised opposition to the government is an organisation linked to Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, which wants to implement Islamic law.

There are a range of authoritarian regimes across the region, but we need only look to Iraq for proof that it is easier to unseat an unpleasant government than put something stable and enduring in its place.

Often the most likely alternative to an unpalatable incumbent regime is even worse.  After all, the west’s current bete noir, the Islamic government in Iran, came to power after popular strikes and demonstrations against an autocratic monarchy.

The “colour revolutions” which newspapers invoke whenever protests across the Arab world are covered, were themselves a mixed bag.  They describe a diverse range of events which affected the relevant countries‘ systems of government quite differently.      

It could be argued that the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the uprising against Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia both secured some lasting democratic gains, even if there were problems associated with both.  In Kyrgyzstan, though, one political clan was simply replaced by another.  Georgia had a similar experience, and President Saakashvili’s so-called democratic credentials are now thoroughly discredited.

Nobody would describe President Mubarak as a democrat, but he has kept a sprawling and potentially volatile country stable and shown diplomacy dealing with some fairly touchy neighbours in the wider region.  The people of Egypt are entitled to challenge his regime - they certainly aren’t at liberty to vote it out of office - but we can’t be blind to the fact that a virulent strain of populist Islamism is eager to fill any political vacuum.

That pattern is replicated across much of North Africa and the Middle East, which is not to say that protesters shouldn’t press for democracy where it is denied.

It’s right to be wary about the outcome of events though.  For governments in the west and their allies in the Arab world, there is some truth in the maxim ‘better the devil you know’.  They can’t afford to disregard broader geo-political issues or throw caution to the wind by cheerleading revolution.


K D Tennent said...

To be fair to Mubarak, he has gradually increased democracy over the years, even if Egypt remains something of a police state. Catastrophic for Egypt if radical Islam takes over however, as that would ruin the tourism industry that much of the country relies on. I'd hope some kind of transition to a carefully managed democracy would be possible.

Anonymous said...

"It is easier to unseat an unpleasant government than put something stable and enduring in its place."

Wise words, and you will have noticed that the truly tyrannical Arab regimes like Assad's and Gadaafi's seem exempt from popular protest and BBC/FO meanderings.