When the old regime fell in Tunisia on January 14th, observers started to look to the rest of the Arab world to see which dictator might be next to make a swift ‘exit stage right’ and make way for democracy. Egypt and Libya were instant favourites, considering how long their dictators had been in power and the respectful economic/social states of each country. Egypt has dangerously high levels of chronic unemployment and many people living in abject poverty; Libya has oil wealth but the political and media environment is closed in the way Tunisia was two weeks ago.
Protests started in earnest in Egypt, and they don’t appear to be calming down. Quite the opposite actually – the last two days has seen extensive and angry protests in Cairo, with Hosni Mubarak’s government reacting by temporarily shutting down access in the country to social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. The internet is being used widely in Egypt to organise protests, as it was in Tunisia. On Tuesday the Twitter ‘hashtag’ #jan25 went viral, thousands of Tweets coming from the Cairo protest itself as well as observers around the world.
It appears then, that history is repeating itself; the movement which led to Ben Ali’s downfall in Tunisia has inspired the frustrated masses in Egypt to take to the streets. Oppressed people in all Arab countries have started to shake off the fear – thanks to the Tunisian example – of their regimes. Whilst that pattern might be being repeated, so are the patterns in Western media and diplomatic circles; there’s been light coverage of the Egypt protests, despite once again lethal force being used against them by the Egyptian authorities. Again the Foreign Office ministers are quiet, too afraid to be seen as interfering perhaps, or afraid of what might arise in Egypt in Mubarak’s place.
We so-called progressives like to think that we stand up for human rights. Some of us do anyway. I’m proud of Labour’s decades-long history in speaking out and standing up for people who live without the rights we take for granted. On the Middle East, however, we’re startlingly quiet. In fact most of the power circles in the Western world are quiet; they’re afraid. The problem is that we’ve got the idea into our collective head that Islam + democracy = islamist, aggressive government. We’re afraid of what that would mean for our foreign policy and how it might affect our interests. Will new, all-powerful ‘Islamist’ countries rise up with military might to replace the Saddam Husseins and Gamel Nassers of the past?
Tunisia showed us that we need to move beyond this outdated narrative. A successful uprising in Egypt will mean that Tunisia wasn’t a one-off and the focus will then be on the other questionable regimes in the region: Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, Saudi, Syria etc. Each country has a slightly different situation, but the message to the West will be clear: we won’t wait for democracy to be forced upon us, we’re taking it in our own time and our own way. We will have to swiftly move beyond the out-dated narrative in political circles that has led to the fear of uprisings in Muslim countries and start being more vocal in our support for the 400 million people who today live without the fundamental freedoms we take for granted every day.
After all, as I said throughout the Tunisia crisis, if we truly believe that human rights and democracy are universal principles, we should be the first in the world to condemn regimes who use disproportionate force against their citizens, and we should start being more vocal at our distaste toward oppressive dictators. I for one believe those values are universal, and I want Britain to have an activist foreign policy which stands up for all people, not just our own narrow self-interest.