Faint columns of twisty smoke on the horizon. Dry dirt and dust whipped into clouds by the commotion in the street. Baking rooftops stretching for as far as the eye can see in the hot sunlight. Your guide ranting in impassioned Arabic, the immense weight and colour of the rich past hanging in the air around you. You can feel it stirring, something new and meaningful adding to it. Chants and songs of freedom from the crowds below, being marched into action and reality. A sense of being at the eye of a storm of change that will define generations. Then loud voices, angry noise and pounding footsteps on the stairs. Bangs as doors crash open; guns and uniforms glistening. An adrenalin fuelled fear as your face is shoved to the gritty floor.
During recent events in Egypt, articles with these sorts of ingredients and phrases were cropping up on the front pages of newspapers every day. Somehow journalists and writers managed to weave their own extraordinary experiences into some sort of comment on events and the news from the ground. Personally I can’t imagine anything more exciting and fulfilling than to be at the heart of such a historical event; effortlessly writing incredibly, simply by saying what your eyes see happening all around you. To work in such a fascinating country at a time of such dramatic upheaval and change is satisfying enough and probably would have overwhelmed me. But consider the implications of the outcome of the protests in Egypt and the ongoing rebellion in the Middle East, and the unfolding story of history becomes even more intoxicating, inspirational and important.
The opening months of 2011 are proving to be nothing short of momentous. I do not need to use hyperbole. Seemingly permanent regimes, which were unquestionably entrenched through power and fear, have crumbled and sprouted glaring weaknesses. As if this weren’t enthusing enough, the forces that have brought about such changes have been new, modern and democratic. People taking to the streets, tired with repression and the state of their economies, have brought about reform and the toppling of infamous regimes. Mass meetings were organized and propelled by tools alien to historians and political analysts, like Facebook and Twitter. Despite distrust of the West, fuelled by its support of the dictators being ousted, most demonstrators called for democratic systems similar to our own that could transform the way the world works together. The true power of politics has been restored.
Egypt is the most high profile case so far but the disruption is ongoing. At the moment it’s Libya in turmoil. We are living through a new age of productive and successful political action. The scenes in Egypt put student protests in this country from the tail end of last year in the shade, but all the demonstrations are part of a global trend. In the continuing difficulties lingering from the economic crisis, we are once again witnessing the interconnectivity of the modern world. And in a rare time of genuine history in a world which had seemingly seen everything, the need for a new form of diplomacy once again emerges.
It was frankly embarrassing for Britain and the US to have such an ever shifting, vague stance on the Egyptian crisis as it unfolded. Of course the dangers and difficulties were plain. We could not tolerate another radical Islamic country, another Iran in a volatile region, particularly in the place of a moderate tourist destination with a stable relationship with Israel. But it was rapidly clear that President Mubarak’s situation was untenable. As soon as this became obvious it became self-defeating to continue to offer even the slightest veil of support for him. Especially when even before the crisis, particularly with Liberals in government, Britain should have been adopting a more comprehensible, pro-democracy/anti-dictatorship stance. Eventually Nick Clegg refreshingly admitted that events in Egypt were “exciting”. Of course they were, this was a whole new kind of revolution; 21st century and democratic, not 20th and Communist.
Britain may no longer be a big player on the world stage, but it once was. As a result of the actions of the British Empire in the past, British governments shall always have a strong duty to nations it has had a considerable hand in shaping. William Hague therefore, as Foreign Secretary, should always have been supportive of the wishes of the Egyptian people. For too long democracies in the West, cajoled by America, have tolerated regimes that abuse civil rights in favour of “stability”. The events of early 2011 have proved that perfect stability is a myth. Any leadership is prone to volatility and violence. Therefore it’s time governments started to stand truly by the philosophies and politics they claim to espouse, and have faith in the people of other nations to make the right choices. There’s a long way to go in Egypt, but so far the people have proved they want democracy, not just a new controlling leadership in the shape of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Debate continues to rage about the best way to deploy the foreign office in the 21st century; what is Britain’s global role? In the past I’ve argued it should be combating climate change and this remains important. But now, given the changing tides, it’s time we started ending support for corrupt governments and supporting the spread of democratic values in a hands-off way. With influence shifting east to China and India, a process of democratisation in the Middle East could prove crucial to the direction of the next century, given the treasure trove of natural resources and energy stored there. A spirit of cooperation, empathy and understanding is needed to face the numerous oncoming challenges and hurdles. Democracy and the UN can help with this.
Other developments in diplomacy mean that we in the West do not merely have to talk the talk of peace either. There are new methods of direct action to punish inflammatory behaviour and enforce calm. Recently details emerged of the Stuxnet computer virus attack on Iran’s nuclear programme, which set it back years. It was a major boost for President Obama’s approach, which has come under fire for its lack of action. Obama can continue to seem reasonable, as he’s always offered the chance of negotiation to Iran. But despite the attack not being officially linked to any government, it’s obvious certain governments sanctioned it. This sort of non-deadly cyber warfare could be the far preferable stick in future diplomatic disputes, as opposed to the nuclear weapons of the Cold War era. Of course not all cyber warfare is so harmless; certain attacks on infrastructure have the potential to reduce societies to chaos and cause scores of deaths. But that’s just a further reason to develop our capabilities, both defensively and offensively, and deploy them in conjunction with our diplomatic aims. Trashing each other’s technical hardware is a far nicer scenario than devastating our cities and if nothing else it will give the West a genuine moral high ground for a change.
As Egypt and other countries begin a transition to fairer governance, it’s innovative methods like these we should use as a last resort to hinder and halt dangerous elements plotting to seize control, as opposed to rash deployments of armed forces. In this new era of history and diplomacy it’s vital we respect the people of other nations and keep them onside. For they now know where the real power lies; with themselves.