By By Robin Simcox
Christopher Hitchens said in September 2004 that ‘we can’t carry on with the approach to the Middle East we have had for the past fifty years. We cannot go on with this proxy rule racket, where we back tyranny in the region for the sake of stability… we have to take the risk of uncorking it and hope the more progressive side wins.’
His observation was as true then – in the context of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – as it is now in the context of uprisings in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. In response, those dictators that came to power by force predictably resorted to using force against their own people. These events have forced the West to (at least partially) recognize that there is nothing realistic—let alone moral—about letting dictators murder their people with impunity. Once the scale of the killing in Libya became apparent, the West had an obligation to act, just as it did in the Balkans in the 1990s. It would be ideal if President Obama could do the same in Syria, but then it would also have been ideal if Clinton could have in Rwanda. Just because we cannot act everywhere does not mean we cannot act anywhere.
Yet some of the same people who used the overthrow of tyrannical regimes as a key justification for supporting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have done a volte face in 2011 and signed up to a Kissingerian realism in which morality and decency matters less than stability. Some of these arguments are familiar: the region will be destabilized. There will be sectarian blood-letting. We cannot be sure what type of regimes will emerge. Others are more original: we are arming al-Qaeda in Libya. We are boosting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. I had no idea how many fans Mubarak had until it became clear he could be overthrown.
There are admittedly reasons to be nervous about what will replace these dictators (as pointed out by my colleague Houriya today on the blog). Hamas’ electoral victory in Gaza in 2007 was a troubling instance of how this can result in ‘one man, one vote, one time’ – a reminder that elections are a necessary, but not sufficient, component of democracy. The Muslim Brotherhood is also likely to be strengthened (though fears of a takeover of the region are overblown). A unity government that would eventually replace President Saleh in Yemen will be a mix of Islamists, socialists and tribesmen. Apart from perhaps a few in the Respect party, it’s not a system that many in the UK would relish living under.
No-one thinks that the overthrow of Middle Eastern dictators is going to produce Madisonian democracies springing up overnight. Yet it does mean that these nations finally stand a chance of moving towards some kind of democratic accountability and genuinely representative government. Of course this is not without its risks. As Hitchens said back in 2004, we hope that the more progressive side wins; but we cannot guarantee it. If we could, they would not be genuinely grassroots uprisings.
Fundamentally, this is a matter of whether or not we expect an entire region to start acting like barbarians as soon as they are given a taste of liberty and their unelected – and unelectable – dictators are deposed. This short-sighted and ahistorical attitude led us to thinking that the Mubaraks and Salehs of this world were the best that the Middle East can offer. If that is the extent of our faith in the universal appeal of democratic freedoms, we may as well give up on the region now.