Transformation in the Middle East -- What the rest of the world can do about it
Thomas Cromwell

In the last century most of the world moved towards one form of democratic government or another. Most fascist and communist regimes crumbled while monarchies were relegated to symbolic functions.

Not so in the Middle East. There, old-time dictators and ruling royalty clung to power through brute force or largesse designed to maintain a status quo of inequality.  

Israel was an exception when it was formed as a democracy in the wake of WWII, largely by a population of European Jews who had fled persecution to settle in the Holy Land and brought with them many of the democratic notions of Western democracy.

Lebanon too was something of an exception. It gained independence from France with its 1943 National Pact that apportioned control of the major government bodies among the confessional communities. This formula has enabled Lebanon to function with more personal freedom than other Arab countries, but has also led to almost constant strife and civil war as demographic and ideological changes as well as regional politics have undermined the fragile governing structure.

But elsewhere, democracy has simply been used as a convenient slogan to plaster over the manipulations of authoritarian governments, governments that in some cases, such as Syria, Iraq, Libya and South Yemen, for decades outdid the brutality of the European Communist regimes that inspired and supported them.

Thus the Arabs of the Middle East and North Africa have until now been condemned to live under anachronistic regimes ruled by dictator presidents, kings or princes.  In these nations, merit has been second to family position and connections, and opportunities for most people have been severely limited.

When, in December 2010, a taxi driver in Tunisia immolated himself to protest life under the rigid rule of President Zine ben Ali, a spark was struck that ignited a fire of revolt among Tunisians. They had had enough and their protests in the face of a typical police crackdown that killed some and injured many continued far longer than anyone expected.

When Ben Ali fled the country on January 14, the Arab world saw something radically new for the region: a peaceful revolt by ordinary people that succeeded in toppling an unpopular regime.

The region will never be the same. Egyptians and Yemenis have already gained courage and are seeking change themselves, while there are stirrings of change in Jordan and elsewhere in the region.

Unlike in the past, Egypt’s protesters have not been deterred by police truncheons and bullets. More important, they have not been cowed by the knowledge that they can expect no mercy from the legions of brutal secret police who since the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser have preserved Egypt’s regimes through torture, prison and fear. 

Observers watching Egypt from afar are worried about how there can be a peaceful transition from the aging president of the last three decades, Hosni Mubarak, to a government that will be friendly to the West, that will not abrogate its peace treaty with Israel, and that will not be run by the Muslim Brotherhood. 

They hope that the Egyptian army will remain the guarantor of acceptable government, but Egypt is not Turkey, where the army has for decades been the guarantor of Kemalism, the Turkish brand of secularism.

Observers are right to be worried, for Western nations have long pursued self-interested policies in the region, policies that have kept authoritarians and tyrants in power and ordinary citizens repressed.

Western Europe has been too quick to recognize radical opponents to some regimes, in the name of fairness, while Washington has never formulated a robust and effective policy that marries diplomatic, financial and military aid with meaningful steps towards more equitable government.

America’s intervention in Iraq is an aberration that cannot be reproduced elsewhere in the region because of the sheer human and financial cost. It produced a much greater measure of democracy in Iraq, but not a model for transition that other countries could emulate.

The future of the Arab world will be decided by what the Arab peoples themselves demand for their future and not what others want for them. 

Only the Arab peoples can legitimately prevent the rise of tyrants, of whatever stripe, in their nations. And only they can prevent minority Islamist forces taking power in places where a leadership vacuum offers opportunities for revolution.

Tunisia showed that determination by ordinary citizens against an authoritarian regime can prevail and can lead to a more just government, without an Iranian-style lurch into Islamic extremism.

The Arab world needs leaders today who emphatically reject the evil and barbarian practices of terrorism, including the horror of suicide bombing, but also can help their fellow Arabs build fair, free and prosperous nations.

America, Europe and other powerful countries can help a positive transformation of the Middle East by throwing their weight behind the legitimate forces for change in the region, while tempering support for existing rulers with persistent and meaningful encouragement to change.

Thomas Cromwell lived in the Middle East for 25 years. For18 of those years he was founding editor and publisher of the Middle East Times. He can be reached at tcromwell@eastwestcoms.com.