Mohamed Bouazizi, a humble Tunisian street vendor who self-immolated on 4 January in protest at his treatment by the authorities, could hardly have imagined that his death would have sparked a chain reaction of rage that so far has toppled the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt and has now engulfed Libya, where Gaddafi and his sons fight for their political survival with all the brutality at their disposal.
In Egypt, the original anti-government protests – as has been the case elsewhere throughout the Arab world – were the result of decades of corruption and inefficient crony capitalism at the top. The system ensured widespread poverty and unemployment, particularly among Egypt’s young people, who had known no leader other than Mubarak. It also silenced all political opposition through a repressive police state. Mubarak’s apparent grooming of his son Gamal to assume the presidency in a seamless dynastic succession was also the spur for much anger and frustration.
Egyptians undoubtedly felt humiliated, but the uprising was not only the work of the poor masses. Many middle-class, highly-educated Egyptians were at the heart of this revolt; they had been exposed to progressive ideas and understood social networking as a medium for coordinating protest. The demonstrators genuinely seemed to want Western-style democracy and were prepared to fight and even to die for that dream. All this amazing people power took Western intelligence services and experts somewhat by surprise.
Egypt brings home to the political class in the West the stark dilemma of geostrategic policy in the Muslim world: whether to support stable secular tyrants as the devil you know or whether to allow Islamist theocracy to possibly take root by encouraging free elections.
Is there a middle way? Can secular, moderate democracy develop in Arab countries? Certainly there's no reason why Islamic countries can't be democratic – look at Indonesia, Bangladesh, Turkey, Malaysia and the Maldives. But these are all Asian countries, and for sure there is no democratic tradition in the Arab world for Egypt and Tunisia to emulate. Above all it’s worth remembering that democracy is not just about free elections. It’s about fundamental human rights as well, including a free press, an independent judiciary, equality of the sexes and freedom of religion, expression, and assembly, which usually takes years to establish in a country's political culture.
However, if such genuine democracy is likely to thrive in the Arab world, Egypt could perhaps be its standard-bearer. At least there are few divisions ethnically (Egyptians are almost all Arabs) and Christians are the only sizeable religious minority. This situation contrasts with other Arab countries such as Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, whose Muslim majorities are divided into Sunni, Shia, Druze and Alaouite communities and are thus potentially less cohesive.
Egypt’s relative lack of oil reserves compared to other countries in the region is also probably helpful in the longer term, even if the country is ripe for democratic change. An abundance of oil in countries like Russia, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia has created undiversified economies with no real free market, and hence little economic transparency or political plurality. Oil-rich Arab countries rely on buying off problems top-down without any real social reforms, a system that is unlikely to create stable social models in the longer term.
However it is also probably true that the faux monarchies (such as Syria, Libya and Algeria) with strongmen still in place are more vulnerable than the real monarchies of Morocco and the Gulf. Genuine monarchies probably command more popular loyalty from the people and although these regimes are autocracies they have not come to power in living memory through bloody revolutions. Thus the relatively bloodless nature of the Nile Revolution in Egypt is also encouraging, because as yet there is little popular appetite for revenge, and the army is maintaining law and order well.
Israel is nevertheless very worried about the prospect of its 1979 post-Camp David formal peace with Egypt unravelling. On a recent visit to Israel I heard Israeli complaints that the West was not sufficiently supportive of Mubarak – but the problem is that having justified the war in Iraq in the name of democratisation we can hardly turn around and say to the protesters that they are wrong in aspiring to democracy. Besides, the European Union is based on shared democratic values and if populations previously under autocracy are willing to embrace democracy we can hardly deny it to them.
Israel will now have to reconfigure its defence posture as a precaution and shift forces to the south to defend the Sinai border and thus weaken its defences against Hezbollah to the north and Hamas (in league with Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood) in the Gaza Strip. Indeed, we must hope that the Egypt-Gaza border crossing at Rafah will remain closed so that arms cannot be smuggled to Hamas from Egypt. It is also worrying that the new transitional military regime has allowed Iranian warships through Suez for the first time since the Islamic Revolution to supply weaponry to Syria and Hezbollah. This may just be Iran exploiting the vacuum but it is a clear provocation to Israel, whose coast the warships have sailed close to.
In my view enhanced EU aid should now be made conditional on democratisation but also on non-revocation of the Egypt-Israel peace accord. The EU is part of the UN Quartet, and the peace agreement is essential for stability and the security architecture in the region.
I also believe the popular support for the Muslim Brotherhood has been overstated and probably lies at around 20 per cent. However, an early election with no credible opposition would be likely to strengthen the Muslim Brotherhood greatly, and its participation in a coalition government cannot be entirely excluded. We have seen in Gaza that Islamists are happy to use democracy as a springboard to power but then to crush it when they attain power. It’s worth recalling that Hitler was elected democratically, as were communists in post-war Czechoslovakia, and neither of these regimes were democratic. Worryingly, polls suggest 95 per cent of Egyptians want Islam to play a major role in politics and 80 per cent believe adulterers should be stoned, so Islamists have fertile ground to campaign on.
We have already heard allegations of torture and extrajudicial imprisonment of protesters by the Egyptian army. The poor human rights situation in Egypt, which was already of concern, is therefore likely to persist as the uncertainty continues. Meanwhile, in contrast, the ruling family in Bahrain, faced with its own popular revolt, has released Shia political prisoners and the exiled Tunisian Islamist leadership has returned to the country.
The Egyptian army is much stronger and united than the army in Tunisia. However, it’s not clear what deal the generals may have cut with Mubarak (although the authorities have belatedly requested his family’s assets abroad to be frozen), or more generally whether the army generals are prepared to give up the extraordinary powers and privileges they have accumulated since 1952 and allow a genuine civilian-led democracy. Most likely the generals are buying time to consider their options, and the UK and EU should allow time for the transitional regime to permit building recognisable secular democratic parties as a bulwark against the Muslim Brotherhood. This is an opportunity for the Conservative Party, with like-minded parties elsewhere, to help build sister parties from scratch in these countries.
This revolutionary hurricane blowing across the Arab world is only the end of the beginning. Egypt, Tunisia and other countries in the region all face enormous economic difficulties as tourism and foreign direct investment dry up. It is very hard to say at present what will eventually emerge. I am old enough to remember the toppling of the Shah of Iran and seeing the moderate Abulhassan Banisadr return in 1979 to Iran, become president democratically, and then be replaced by a violent and brutal Islamist theocracy led by Ayatollah Khomeini.
Whatever the revolutionary phenomenon in the Arab world, the West cannot be too interfering. Egyptians must be masters of their own destiny. However, neither can we in the UK or the EU collectively be hands-off. We could rapidly face serious threats to our national security, such as the prolonged interruption of oil supplies to mass uncontrolled economic migration, if these countries collapse into chaos or even more oppressive regimes emerge than before.
I believe we need a mini-Marshall Plan to mobilise aid from the EU, US and China. We also need large loan finance, and the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development – so helpful in Eastern Europe and reconstructing the post-Soviet space in the 1990s – have offered to help. A conference in Brussels for this purpose and organised by High Representative Cathy Ashton has taken place today (23 February), and let us hope it comes up with some useful proposals.