Or, as the Americans would have it, Egyptian fall. My take on what is happening in Egypt right now is one I set out in the (much delayed) Lords debate on the Arab spring over a year ago. In brief, democracy is not just about voting. Voting is necessary but insufficient in itself. The state needs a constitutional structure and the rule of law. This is the gist of what I said in the debate.
It was with considerable optimism that we greeted the start of the so-called Arab spring a year ago, seeing in it a mirror of the events that freed eastern Europe from 1989 onwards, and confirmation for those who believed that democracy and liberty were indeed dormant in Arab countries, waiting only for the opportunity to express themselves. There is a rather more sombre mood today. Rather than ushering in a new era of democracy and human rights, there may be the emergence of Governments which are intrinsically hostile to the West and repressive of their own fellow citizens. We do not hear much now from the young liberated people who started the revolutions: instead, we see new regimes as repressive as those they replaced. Indeed, there is worse on the way, for events in Syria are of a nature not witnessed since the disintegration of Yugoslavia. The danger is that, after one election, future genuine elections may never materialise, as was the case in Iran after the fall of the Shah.
The coming of the Arab summer is uncertain because of the lack of democratic party-political infrastructure in most of the Middle East countries that face change. We hope for stability, liberty, dignity, proper governance and better living conditions for them, but they are unachievable without the pillars of civil society being in position. Democracy is more than free elections. It requires free speech, a free press, a constitution, freedom for and of religion, equal justice under the law, individual rights and women’s rights, an independent judiciary and freedom of communication. That is where the UK can help. Our Government should provide support for that infrastructure, and international organisations should support women’s participation and political leadership, for no country can prosper when half its population is effectively muzzled. The UK Government can help the Arab world meet the challenges of modernisation, which are so far unmet- those are science, technology, women’s rights, and communications-and prevent counterrevolution against modernisation.
In the distribution of foreign aid by the UK there is room to fund scholarships for Arab students and civil servants to come here to study government administration, and to send experts from here to the Middle East to help establish the pillars of civil society. It is urgent, for many are suffering in the mean time-namely, the Egyptian economy, Christian minorities in Iraq, Egypt and Syria, women and African migrant workers. Being in a minority in the Arab Muslim world was always dangerous and precarious, and minorities suffer even more when national unity is at the forefront.
Other generic problems in the Middle East are hampering a move to a good future-namely, the treatment of women; the inability to settle refugees, whether they are Palestinians, Iraqi refugees in Syria, Syrians in Jordan, Somalis in Yemen or Iranians in Iraq; and the unwillingness to host the minorities in their midst. That is in contrast to the multiculturalism and hospitality rightly expected by Middle Eastern migrants to this country and the West.
The Syrian question is a blot on the history of the United Nations and has further weakened the standing of the UN itself. Turkey has recently held what appears to be a show trial with the effect of threatening journalists and other professionals. The greatest threat of all, where the spring was choked off, is nuclear Iran, supporter of Assad. As a nuclear power, it will dominate the region and the energy supply. It threatens genocide. Its human rights record is particularly appalling, with executions, political prisoners, the persecution of women, gays and minorities, and its blocking of communications-allegedly the BBC Persian service and internet sites. There may be a slightly better spoken new Iranian President, but this is a case of old wine in a new bottle.