Astonished by the uprising in Egypt, Western countries anxious to be on the right side of history have started to reassess ties to army-backed Arab strongmen stubbornly opposed to democracy.
On grounds of both principle and self-interest, the West must promote more responsive and democratic government in the region to ensure peaceful change in societies yearning for a better life, officials at a security conference in Germany said.
“The past two weeks are a wake-up call,” former Republican presidential candidate John McCain said. He said he wanted democracy in the region not out of “some misplaced moralism” but because the resultant stability would help the United States.
“The greatest guarantee of stability is democracy … Our national interests demand it (in the Middle East).”
Whether those sentiments turn into reality may hinge on the outcome of events in Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous and influential country, where an unprecedented revolt has shaken President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year-old grip on power, Reuters reports.
“What happens in Egypt affects all of our interests throughout the region,” said Frank Wisner, President Barack Obama’s private envoy to the Egyptian crisis. “We are aiming for an orderly transition to a democratic future.
Western democracy rhetoric tends to be greeted with cynicism in the Middle East, because the region has been here before.
A U.S. push for democracy in the Middle East after the 2003 Iraq invasion ran out of steam when the Islamist movement Hamas won parliamentary elections in the Palestinian territories in 2006.
Critics of Western diplomacy in the region says this episode reflected a double standard, namely that the West compromises on its democratic ideals when the outcome would be unfavourable.
But many speakers at the gathering said the revolts in Tunisia and especially Egypt showed that this time it could be different, because these were genuinely popular expressions of anger about corruption, joblessness and poor state services.
The involvement of youths, secularists and the educated middle class gave the lie to any notion that Islamists were at the vanguard of opposition forces in the Arab world.
Arab governments have long said the only alternatives to their repressive rule are banned Islamist groups they say would bring an Iranian-style theocratic rule to the region.
This preoccupation with Islamist influence was echoed at the gathering by Israeli National Security Adviser Uzi Arad, who said security should be the top Western concern in the region.
But many Western analysts said the revolt had brought a chance for more secular, modernist and technocratic forces to become involved in government.
“Our friends are those that want to take Egypt into the modern world,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said. Egypt was an opportunity for democracy not to be missed.
John Chipman, Director-General of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, saw the idea that the only alternative to Mubarak was Islamist as a “totally out of date mantra.”
“There is a possibility of a technocratic government of all the talents … if the United States and the European Union favour it,” he said.
Diplomats say a successful move to better governance in Egypt would inspire similar changes in other Arab countries.
Arab states, from Morocco to Yemen, have much in common with Egypt: Many have large populations of unemployed young, entrenched leaderships, rule under state of emergency laws, and opposition groups which say it is time for democracy.
Some analysts say that whether Mubarak goes or stays, the real behind-the-scenes power in the country will remain the army: Egypt’s large armed forces have been at the heart of power since army officers overthrew the monarchy in 1952.
Chipman said continued military influence was not necessarily a concern. “Yes the military can hold the ring, but they would hold the ring for a very different type of government. I think that is still there to play for.”
One of the more pessimistic voices, from a democrat’s point of view, is that of U.S. academic Robert Springborg, who sees “no chance whatsoever” of Washington ending its habit of forging alliances with military-backed autocrats.
Springborg, Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, says the army is working quietly with the West to remove Mubarak from power in return for keeping its behind-the-scenes dominance of the political system.
“We have missed a historic opportunity,” he said, arguing that a secular democratic Egypt would have been in Israel’s interest.