I’ve been quiet thus far about the protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and the rest of the Middle East – mainly because it’s not my area of expertise, and other people have far more intelligent things to say about the subject than I ever possibly could. But I realise that it’d be disrespectful of me not to express some kind of hope in the grassroots popular movements in the Arab world given the events of the past few days. Whatever one thinks of the leaders currently in power in North Africa and the Arab Peninsula, the mere idea that the Middle East could express a yearning for democracy and accountability without waving AK-47s and advocating for Muslim theocracy is in itself heartening. Arabs young and old have proven that they can’t be so easily stereotyped.
What Tunisia has shown is that a long-standing, entrenched régime still has to watch its back, and that no leader or dictator is completely safe from his people. That’s the way it should be. Whether the topping of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali is the first in a series of popular uprisings and democratic revolutions, or merely the high point of this ongoing series of events, is not for me to judge. But let’s take Hosni Mubarak, the fourth and current president of Egypt, in power since 1981. Mubarak is the target of the current protests in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez (the BBC News website is the best place for coverage), for the very legitimate reason that he’s a corrupt dictator who’s contributed to a decades-long economic stagnation and aided the ruling élites in stealing and pillaging the riches of their nation.
While the rejoicing at Ben Ali’s ousting in Tunisia was almost universal, many have suggested that Mubarak must be helped and protected as an ally and a bulwark against extremism and islamism (Vice-President Joe Biden being one of them) – and that the alternative would be to hand the country over to the Muslim Brotherhood, who would turn what was one of the few friends of Israel in the region into a military threat for the Jewish state. It’s certainly a viable argument, and may well be true.
I’ve met a few Egyptians in my time, though not enough to make generalisations. My impression is that they’re too hedonistic and live-and-let-live to allow an Iranian-style theocracy to take over, and that they’re more likely to turn to someone like pro-democracy campaigner and former IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei. But beyond what might or might not happen, Mubarak has held onto power for too long, and the prospect of his son Gamal taking over after his retirement or death is an insult to the Egyptian people. The current régime needs to, at the very least, remove restrictions and pressure on the opposition (and free speech) and move towards truly free elections. And if the end result is an anti-American government that worries Israel, depressing as that idea might be, the people will at least have spoken.