This is quite a moment to be starting a blog in which I plan to comment on, among other things, developments in the Middle East. As I write, tens of thousands of Egyptians are still in Tahrir Square in Cairo demanding that President Hosni Mubarak go. They are insisting on a change of system not just a change of government; they want democracy, the lifting of martial law, freedom of expression and assembly, an end to torture and corruption. Whether they will achieve these aims remains to be seen, but with the army having made it clear today that it will not use force against the people while they are publicly expressing a legitimate desire for democratic reform, it looks increasingly likely that Mubarak will be forced to step down. If the demonstrators can continue to build on the numbers gathering in the square and elsewhere – the call went out for 1 million people to gather on Tuesday – perhaps their wish that Friday will be ‘goodbye day’ will come true.
It must be right for everyone who believes in human rights values to support the Egyptian people at this time. Yes, it’s very uncertain what will follow a successful overthrow of the Mubarak regime, but concerns that it might open the door to the Muslim Brotherhood or some other Islamist political force cannot be an excuse for denying people their basic rights and trying to prop up what is so clearly a discredited and distrusted structure. These concerns may well be exaggerated and are almost certainly being encouraged by the regime, which wants to frighten people into staying with the devil they know. But it seems that the appeal of jihadi or Islamist political power, such as it was, may well have waned in Arab countries – it played no part in the so-called ‘Jasmine Revolution’ in Tunisia – and universal secular values are what the broad mass of those demonstrating care about, first and foremost.
It’s understandable that Western governments are nervous. Many will be worrying about the attitude of any new political force that comes to power to Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. But it’s tremendously dispiriting to read that Prime Minister Netanyahu has instructed Israeli embassies to convey the message to Western leaders that stability must come first, even if that means propping up Mubarak. This is surely a narrow-minded, short-term view of the situation, typical of the blinkered, counter-productive, self-centred approach that the Israeli government displays when thinking about the security of Israel. They cannot continue to proclaim that they alone in the region stand for the values of democracy and freedom and at the same time deny it to the Egyptian people. It must be in Israel’s long-term interest to demonstrate a much warmer and far more welcoming response to the Egyptian uprising.
Tomorrow is another day and it may bring developments that dampen optimism. But we have to live in hope that the people living under corrupt, dictatorial, oppressive and brutal regimes in the Middle East, regimes that care nothing for human rights, will find the will and the way, with the help and good wishes of millions of supporters around the world, to attain their freedom.