Arab revolts jolt West into reassessing policies

AFP , Monday 7 Mar 2011

The revolts shaking the Arab world are forcing Western powers to reassess their foreign policy in the region, long focused on self-interest rather than promoting democratic principles, analysts say

Arab Revolts
Anti-government protestors wave Tunisian, Yemeni and Egyptian flags during a demonstration demanding the resignation of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Sanaa, Yemen, (AP).

"We are facing the downfall of the old Arab order and the birth of a new one, a process that could take months or years," political science professor Khattar Abu Diab, of the University of Paris XI, told AFP.

"But one thing is sure, this democratic tsunami will not stop," he added.

"The Arab youths who took to the streets have forced Western countries to realise that the regimes they backed are not eternal and that they must listen to the people and not focus only on their own economic interests."

The first wake-up call for the West came with Tunisia's so-called "Jasmine Revolution" that toppled strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

The next jolt came with the spectacular downfall of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak that inspired the popular uprising against Libya's Moamer Kadhafi and demonstrations in other Arab countries, including Yemen, Bahrain and Jordan.

The revolts not only caught off guard the region's many autocratic rulers but upended the long-standing policies of Western countries which, fearing an Islamist tide, for decades backed regimes that openly flouted basic human rights and democratic principles.

"Arab regimes had convinced the West that the only other alternative if they were toppled was Islamist extremism, but they were proven wrong," said Paul Salem, head of the Beirut-based Middle East Carnegie Centre.

"The Islamists have been present during the revolutions sweeping the region but they are well aware that these revolts and the slogans they carry are not theirs to claim," he added.

"The people are opting for other slogans -- freedom, modernity, diversity and democracy."

Analysts also criticised the lack of foresight among Western countries which failed to read the early warning signs of simmering discontent in Arab societies.

"Western countries were taken by surprise... because they were only in contact with the political leadership," said French political analyst Agnes Levallois, author of "Moyen Orient, mode d'emploi" (A User's Guide to the Middle East).

"They were blindsided by two themes: the fight against fundamentalism and illegal immigration," she added. "They must now begin a dialogue with new interlocutors... to build faith and a real partnership with the youths behind the revolts."

But the major question today is who will emerge as the voice of the new Middle East once the dust settles.

Although some analysts expressed concern that Islamist movements could gain ground in future elections, others said the democratic wind of change would sweep away extremism.

"The revolts will stem the rise of Islamism... which will have a share in upcoming elections but not a significant one," predicted Salem.

The West, especially the United States, will also be closely watching how emerging democracies in the Middle East deal with Israel and Western oil interests in the region, the analysts said.

Diab said Washington and its Western allies are left with no choice but to adopt a more balanced approach when dealing with the region, especially as concerns the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"All these uprisings and revolutions are not spurred by ideology," he said. "But their steadfastness lies in the creation of a new regional equation that respects justice and equality, including as concerns the creation of a viable Palestinian state.

"By doing so, the West would defuse the most explosive issue in the Middle East."

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