LONDON — The revolution in Tunisia was set off by the self-immolation of a poor vendor persecuted by an autocratic and corrupt regime. The consequent toppling of the Tunisian dictator inspired revolts in Egypt, Bahrain and Libya and led to unrest in the Yemen, Algeria and Jordan. It also spurred the opposition in Iran. The ousting of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt as a result of popular pressure was achieved because the Egyptian Army refused to slaughter Egyptian civilians. In Libya, Col. Moammar Gadhafi is trying to suppress dissent by brutal terror. In Bahrain the opposition has won concessions from the rulers.
It is too early to predict the final outcome in the Middle East and we need to be wary of too much wishful thinking about an “Arabian spring” and the spread of democracy throughout the region. The toppling of tyrants who have salted away the riches of their countries in personal bank accounts is welcome and the development of democratic institutions most desirable. But it will inevitably take time for radical changes to be implemented and there may well be steps back as well as forward in the process. The countries in which revolts have taken place are all different and there is no single unifying force or ideology behind the revolutions.
The absence of a democratic tradition is often cited as a reason for caution, but this did not prevent most East European communist regimes from developing democratic institutions and legal systems. Many did so quickly and sufficiently to enable their countries to become members of the European Union, which insists that all members adhere to democratic principles. There are important cultural and religious differences between Eastern Europe and the Middle East, but it would be wrong to argue from this that Arab countries are incapable of becoming democracies.
History teaches us to be cautious about the willingness of the armed forces, which have had a dominant and lucrative role in some countries, to cede power willingly to civilian governments that may try to curb their power and wealth. But Turkey is an example of a country where the army has launched coups and controlled the government for many years, but which now seems firmly under civilian control and is regarded as sufficiently democratic to justify application for membership of the EU. Armies and security forces, except where, as in Libya, foreign mercenaries have been used, are made up of conscripts or volunteers from the indigenous population and there are real limits on what action they can be ordered to take against heir brethren.
Some argue that Islam is antidemocratic and that an Islamic country cannot develop democratic institutions. Turkey again shows that this is not the case. The calls by ultra-conservative Islamic clerics and extremist elements for a new universal caliphate do not represent Islam as a whole.
In his recent tour of Middle Eastern states, British Prime Minister David Cameron warmly welcomed the development of democratic institutions. He was right to take a positive view and to emphasize that it was up to the peoples of Middle Eastern countries to choose their own path forward. We can help but interference would be counterproductive.
Hitherto the emphasis has tended, among conservative politicians at least, to be placed on stability as the main guarantor of peace and economic development in the region and as the best defense against Islamic fundamentalism. But if stability can only be achieved by suppression and infringement of human rights it is not worth achieving, and may result in even more violence and bloodshed in the future.
Ferment in the Arab world increases concerns about oil supplies. Recent rises in oil prices adds to inflationary pressures in importing countries, but it makes alternative sources of energy more competitive. Dependence on oil from the Middle East needs to be reduced because of global warming and the danger of interruptions of supply.
Trade with Arab countries is of growing importance. Too much of their resources have been spent on defense equipment. Arms should not be sold to autocratic regimes that may use these weapons against their own peoples. Trade in other goods will increase if democratic institutions lead as they should to better infrastructure, education and health care. Increased trade is the best form of aid.
Tourism has been an important source of foreign exchange for Egypt and Tunisia. The sooner the tourists return the better for their economies. But this will depend on the establishment of reliable police forces and the rule of law.
The moves toward democracy in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain should lead to increased pressures for democratic change both in and outside the Arab world. In Iran the theocracy-backed revolutionary guard seem ready to impose its will by force and terror, but for how long can this be maintained? Iran has a growing population of educated young people unable to find jobs. As in Egypt they will surely increasingly demand freedom and employment. The Saudi monarchy is not yet threatened, but Saudi Arabia also has a restless class of young and educated unemployed.
Friends of Gadhafi include the old and corrupt Robert Mugabe who is protected in Zimbabwe by his armed and pampered henchmen. The sooner he goes the better for the people of his exploited country. Another friend is said to be Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Autocratic and anti-American, he would not be missed, but he is not in quite the same league of nastiness as Mugabe and Gadhafi.
The Chinese people have been largely denied news of the ferment in the Middle East. The Chinese Communist Party will do all it can to prevent another student protest developing and inspiring a wider public demonstration against corrupt one party rule.
There is sadly no sign yet that popular protests in Burma will force the regime to make more than token concessions. In North Korea none will have been permitted to hear anything that might suggest that even mild complaints should be allowed to surface.
Let us hope that the spring of 2011 will be the dawn of a new and more democratic era, at least in the Arab world.
Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.