Resist pessimism – keep faith with the Arab Spring

Published in the London Evening Standard (January 3rd, 2012)

Just under a year ago, I travelled around Libya posing as a tourist to talk to people planning the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi. Between visits to classical ruins and museums I ducked into the homes and offices of brave individuals willing to risk jail, torture and execution to discuss the revolution with a foreign reporter.

The atmosphere in Tripoli was horribly tense since Gaddafi had flooded the streets with security to protect his stronghold. In Benghazi, where days later the revolt began, the mood felt strangely freer, despite its history as an opposition hotspot. The activists were pessimistic that they would manage to overthrow the dictator who had ruled for 42 years; one put the chances of success at just 20 per cent.

Yesterday, I spoke to the same man – Ramadan Jarbou, a prominent writer – about the astonishing events that have transformed his nation since we met. The gamble paid off, he said, although at the cost of 50,000 Libyan lives, with thousands more injured. “This is the price you pay for freedom.”

Now comes the challenge of creating civic institutions and a political class in a country ruled by force for so long, with regional militias still on the streets and vast oil revenues up for grabs. “It will take time to rebuild the state but it will be a great achievement if we manage it,” said Jarbou.

He is right. It is a huge task to build a new system of governance based upon the rule of law in a matter of months. Western nations took decades to develop their democracies and imperfections remain evident; just look at the current contest for the US presidency, the row over appointments to the House of Lords or last month’s conviction of a French president for corruption.

But instead of nurturing the shoots of democracy, there seems a sudden outbreak of defeatist pessimism in the West. We are hearing the same myopic “realism” that led governments to prop up acquiescent despots such as Gaddafi, despite historical evidence that this made them more likely to be overthrown by extremists hostile to our interests.

At the weekend a Republican frontrunner for the White House even attacked President Obama for his failure to stick by America’s corrupt, repressive ally Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Rick Santorum added that the electoral success of the Muslim Brotherhood “was not about democracy” since they were Islamists.

It is worrying to hear such contorted logic from someone with a chance – albeit thankfully slender – of capturing the most powerful job in the world. But in this country too, a swelling chorus of commentators echo such arguments as they bemoan the supposed takeover of the region by extreme Islamists.

Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit-seller who set fire to himself and sparked the conflagration that ripped across Arab lands and reverberated around the world.

In many ways, for all the sickening bloodshed in Syria, the stalemate in Yemen and the continued state repression in Bahrain and Egypt, it is remarkable what has been achieved in such a short space of time given the turbulence of any revolutionary age.

Three autocratic rulers have been overthrown, while four absolute monarchs have been forced into faltering steps towards constitutional legitimacy. There have been decent elections held in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt – where there are 55 political parties – and free expression is blossoming; Libya alone has more than 200 new newspapers.

Such things were unimaginable a year ago. Even the Arab League has sprung to life after years in a stupor. On top of this, there is no real evidence of terrorist groups exploiting the unrest, as they did in the wake of the Iraq invasion, while Iran has been weakened by the emerging civil war in Syria, its closest ally.

Few of the courageous young activists I have met over the past year in places such as Cairo and Damascus wished to see Islamist parties triumph at the polls. Nor, of course, would many in the West, fearing the long-term implications.

But we should keep things in perspective. We have long been used to Christian parties in European politics, and these are Islamic societies. In Tunisia, for example, the moderate Islamic party that won the elections did a power-sharing deal with a Left-wing partner while the president is a staunch secularist.

If the highly conservative Muslim Brotherhood eventually takes power in Egypt, for all our alarm we should not complain if it is won at the ballot box and not abused in office. We cannot demand democracy, then complain when people exercise their vote in a way we dislike. It is another sign of Western arrogance.

Besides, in seeking to inflict their outdated morality on other people, how different are they from those religious zealots running for the Republican nomination in America on promises to outlaw any abortion or gay marriage?

As the misnamed Arab Spring enters its second year, only one thing is clear: the path ahead is deeply unpredictable and devoid of signposts. The transition from autocracy to democracy is rarely smooth, especially when forced by blood-stained revolution, and there will be protracted power struggles. But as new Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkol Karman says, only democracy has the power to drive violent extremism from the Arab world.

The same forces driving the uprisings – the demand for dignity, the anger at corruption, the growth of transparency, the power of new technologies – are behind democracy protests flaring up from Russia to Swaziland. People are risking their lives and liberty for human rights we take so easily for granted.

Studies show democracy, for all its flaws and for all our cynicism, leads to happier citizens, faster long-term economic growth and fewer conflicts. Its global growth is one reason why the past decade saw far fewer deaths in wars than any decade of the previous century.

This is why democracy remains worth fighting for in countries blighted by repressive kleptocracies. So in this year of elections, when people in a third of the world’s countries go to the polls, let’s not give up on the Arab Spring just yet.

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