Arab Spring Demands That The West Listen To the Arab Street

The Arab world's collective push toward democracy has been described by William Hague, The British Foreign Secretary,   as the most significant political event since the fall of Communism.    The fact that despotic regimes in Libya, Bahrain and Yemen , previously supported by the West either as  “the least worst” option or in the case a Yemen a bulwark against Al Qaida, are using lethal force against their citizenry should surprise no one.  What is surprising is just how peacefully and quickly Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt were toppled.

The Arab Spring is a construct of course.  Each country across the Mid East and North Africa is a unique case with different motives and factors behind each uprising and revolt.  What’s notable so far though is the consistent profile of those seeking freedom - not necessarily the same thing as the West’s idea of democracy.

They tend to be young (almost 60% of the Mid East’s population are under 25) and very Internet communications savvy.  When Arabs talk about "freedom", they don’t define it the way George W Bush did.  They want freedom from corruption, state repression, torture and political cronyism.  Democracy could of course be a way of achieving that, but for many of these protesters changing whole systems, not just the political leaders, is what’s important.

This movement is not sudden or new.  It began in the 1990s when the arrival of satellite television, especially al-Jazeera, challenged the old regimes’ monopoly on information, a process accelerated by the arrival of the Internet.  Young people throughout the Mid East have seen more attractive lifestyles on TV or online and their aspirations are equally high.  As those youngsters’ chance of finding work diminished, the ruling elites (propped up or at least tolerated by the West because of oil) clung greedily to power, purely in it for themselves and confident that the normal rules, including the rule of law, did not apply to them.

The lesson for the West will be equally stark   Up until now both the despotic regimes in place and US and European leaders could afford to ignore the voice of the Arab street – after all, it didn’t really matter much what popular sentiment was.  That frustration was exploited by fundamentalist groups or terrorist organizations and the voice of the street was expressed through 9/11, simply because there was no other way to make anyone listen.   If these Arab countries are to become more or less “democratic” or at least certainly more “representative”, the views of the Arab street  will become the most important factor guiding Western foreign policy.

Instead of selling arms, the West should be selling education packages, trade agreements and cooperation.  In short, conducting a foreign policy in terms of supporting the things we are supposed to stand for, rather than propping up corrupt regimes simply because we think they oppose the things we are against.  That will have significant implications for other areas of Mid East policy.  How can the West credibly condemn despotic regimes it has tacitly supported and overtly armed for killing the citizenry when the state of Israel, in the view of many Arabs, has been doing the same thing to the Palestinians for decades?  If we are prepared to provide a no fly zone for Libya, why not for the Gaza Strip?  God knows there are enough UN Security Council resolutions that have been ignored by Israel to justify it.  And, in the not too distant future, Israel will not be “the only democracy in the Mid East”, so that reason for double standards will have gone too.

 The far-reaching changes in Arab countries are demographic and social as much as political.  Even in Tunisia and Egypt where protest was not met by violent repression there are struggles ahead. But these old regimes cannot survive indefinitely. A few years from now most of them will be gone or at least transformed beyond recognition and we in the West need to adjust our stance accordingly.

The author, Allan Bisset, is a freelance journalist and works with several companies including those who provide management development and leadership training and intercultural training.