This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 25/02/2011
I’ve lost count of the times in recent years when I’ve heard the commonplace assertion that in the Arab world the choice is between dictatorship or rule by extremists. Until recently the only credible prospects for an end to Ben-Ali, Mubarak, or Gaddafi rule was a smooth handover of power to their offspring and more of the same.
The violence that engulfed Iraq in the years after the 2003 invasion prompted many to say that such states were perhaps in need of a ruthless strongman; an ‘orientalist’ like Bernard Lewis and an Islamist Ideologue like Sayyid Qutb could at times sound very similar in their assertion that so-called Western values like freedom, equality and democracy were alien to the Muslim world.
But in recent days we have seen ordinary Libyans proving everyone wrong; behaving with a bravery and clarity of purpose almost incomprehensible to us in Europe – braving machine gun fire, murderous thugs and indiscriminate bombing from a crazed regime threatening to fight them down to the last bullet.
But what has also made the West sit up and take notice is that demonstrators in Tahrir Square, Pearl Roundabout, Tunis and Benghazi haven’t been chanting “Death to America”, burning British flags or calling for the creation of an Islamic state (much as Saif al-Gaddafi would like us to believe), they have mostly peacefully been calling for freedom, citizenship, human rights and reform.
Britain for many years has insistently lobbied such regimes on the need for such freedoms; respect for civil society, freedom of the media and political rights. Yet one of the distinguishing features of these revolutions is that they have come in spite of efforts from the West, spontaneous movements from ordinary people with legitimate grievances, who are suddenly finding how powerful they can be when they act together in the interests of the whole nation.
I have also heard many conspiracy theorists beginning to emerge. Surely these events couldn’t have happened without the collusion of the mighty US pulling strings behind the strings – or perhaps Israel decided that Mubarak no longer served their purposes? In truth, the US is running to catch up with events like the rest of us. In reality, it is the case that the people of North Africa and beyond are only just discovering their own strength and inner resources. This is no longer a region under the thumb of colonialism or outside domination. Suddenly it is obvious to the world that there is a Tunisian nation that will not submit to injustice and oppression, and an Egyptian nation, and….
It is inspirational talking to Tunisians and Libyans here in London, feeling that giddy sensation of freedom for the first time – able to speak their minds without looking over one shoulder and without fearing the consequences.
For us in Britain, these decisive moves towards reform and freedoms are something we will wholeheartedly support – comparable to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the euphoria felt by those in Eastern Europe, who for the first time could participate in saying how their countries should be run. Although it would of course be infinitely preferable to see transition happening peacefully, through political structures with sufficient flexibility to accommodate reform.
PM David Cameron – the first major figure to visit post-revolutionary Egypt made clear that Britain would stand by Egypt and the region in their efforts towards reform, but that Egypt’s transitional leadership must continue to give effect to the will of the people in a manner which brought about genuine democratic change. We will continue to hold the Tunisian and Egyptian authorities to account, but will be providing real assistance through our Arab Partnership Programme.
David Cameron in the Kuwaiti parliament asserted that freedom is sweeping across the region, at the same time making the important acknowledgement that the West was wrong in its support for undemocratic regimes; “denying people their basic rights does not preserve stability, rather the reverse”.
That is why Britain has been one of the most outspoken countries in its condemnation of the Libyan regime’s murder of its own citizens. Banning the media, blocking communications and lying about the real situation has fooled no-one. The whole world is watching the situation in Libya and those responsible must one way or another face justice.
We all hope that the suffering of the Libyan people does not continue and that very soon they will be enjoying the sweet taste of freedom currently sweeping through the streets of Cairo and Tunis. We salute your courage and determination and hope that your efforts bring about the freedoms and reform that you seek. We are also discussing with our partners what future steps can be taken, including sanctions such as a travel ban and an arms embargo.
Barry Marston is a spokesman for the British Foreign Office, specializing in Middle East Issues