/ 21 September 2012

West must learn to walk many Arab streets

A Muslim demonstrator holds up a sign during a protest in Bangkok.
A Muslim demonstrator holds up a sign during a protest in Bangkok.

The events of the past week have only driven the message home further – and made it clear how high the stakes are in the battle to determine the future direction of Arab politics.

Since the decolonisation of the Middle East in the wake of World War I, Arab countries have been ruled by a series of dictators who often justified and maintained their rule with ideologies – and with guns – imported from the West.

Over the decades, a fragile arrangement emerged whereby the United States did its dealings with the region's dictators in return for stability in the world's most crucial oil-producing region. Egypt and Syria violently suppressed their own strongly anti-American Islamist movements; in Syria's case, with the deaths of tens of thousands and the near-levelling of the city of Hama in 1982.

The US didn't necessarily like the rulers of the Arab world, but it could deal with them. Challengers to the regional status quo were chastened – but not too much. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, then-president George HW Bush ensured Saddam returned to within his own borders but declined to unseat him, largely because he feared the chaos that might follow.

Behind the scenes, Arab dictators and their henchmen whispered to Western diplomats about how complicated their societies were, how violence lay just beneath the surface, and how a strongman was needed to keep the peace and deliver gradual change – just not quite yet.

Economic inequality
The Arab dictators were right about one thing: their societies are complicated. The Arab world is rife with sectarian, social and economic inequality, to which the dictatorships lent undertones of violence. Completely absent in the postwar status quo in the Middle East was any real role for the Arab people themselves.

There was precious little public space for Arabs to discuss and reach compromises on their differences. The West dealt with the dictators, and the dictators dealt with their people: the people had little choice but to accept the status quo.

This era has now come to a spectacular close with what is more appropriately called the "Arab awakening" rather than the "Arab spring". As governments have fallen, the populations of the Arab countries are finally being allowed to participate in forging their own destiny. The familiar, if brutal, regional order is being replaced with something much more complicated. This presents challenges for the West.

Foremost among them is how to increase mutual understanding and tolerance between the peoples of the West and the Arab world. When US President Barack Obama made his famous speech at Cairo's al-Azhar university in 2009, American conservatives derided him for "apologising" for the US and "appeasing" Arab rulers. If this argument ever had any validity when the Arab dictatorships appeared immovable, it has precisely zero now that Arab public opinion is a deciding factor in how the politics of the region develops.

But gestures such as Obama's speech will not be enough. Anti-Western feelings are deep in parts of the Arab world, and it will take more than gestures to dislodge them. Western countries must strike a difficult balance between helping new, popular Arab governments where they can without seeming to dictate to them.

Administrative problems
Their assistance should focus on building trust by helping to address the practical economic and administrative problems facing countries such as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

Many of the grievances that kickstarted the Arab rebellions were economic, and in the short term measures such as debt relief for Egypt should top the agenda. The US must give moderate political figures, such as the secular Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki and Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, some slack in their domestic battles with more extreme groups, which have a sizeable base of support.

In Libya, the focus should be on providing what assistance the new government requires to build up the country's weak central state and to harness the feeling of goodwill towards the West that followed the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi. This is the only way to marginalise groups such as the one that murdered the American ambassador in Benghazi.

On a more profound level, the US must accept that it now has diminished control over events in the region. It must adapt itself to the local moderate forces in each country. A true process of give and take must take place, and this will include setbacks for US interests. A return to the forced intervention of the George W Bush years is out of the question, because it is an inappropriate way to deal with democratically elected governments and will only strengthen the extremists.

Now that the West is no longer able to deal solely with the Arab dictators, it must turn its attention to building trust with the Arab people. In the past, these people have often been derisively and simplistically called, in the singular, the "Arab street". Yet Cairo, Damascus and Benghazi have many streets; we must now patiently learn how to navigate them.