Heady scent of jasmine

THE smell of jasmine is a powerful one. The protests in Tunisia, which led to the hasty departure of dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and which its participants have termed the jasmine revolution, are now echoing across the Arab world. And it is in Egypt, perhaps the most pivotal of Arab states in terms of world politics, that they are having their most powerful effect.

The thousands of demonstrators who have thronged Egyptian cities over the past week are a sight never before seen during the 30-year reign of Hosni Mubarak and it is clear that the country's aged President has no idea of how to respond. Does he offer limited reforms in the hope of buying off the demonstrators, or should he crack down ever tighter on a poverty-stricken nation that is seething with discontent and risk whatever consequences ensue?

The dictator's dilemma is made all the greater by growing pressure from Western governments increasingly concerned at the prospect of chaos engulfing a crucial ally in the struggle against Islamist militancy and in the quest for peace between Arabs and Israelis.

The spreading unrest in Egypt has lent weight to the theory that the world is witnessing an Arab version of the events of 1989 in Eastern Europe, a domino effect in which state after state throws off the shackles of dictatorship and embraces the promise of democracy. Yet history is rarely so neat and the final outcome of current events in North Africa is very unclear.

Should Mr Mubarak depart, it is by no means certain that Egypt would fall under the jihadist yoke, any more than it is that a healthy democracy would emerge. The situation in Tunisia, meanwhile, remains turbulent and there remains a long path to travel before the chance of a stable future is reached.

Fear of Islamism, however, has led the West to turn a blind eye to Arab dictatorships for far too long. The outcome may be uncertain, but the desire of the Arab people finally to have a say in their own future is clear. The scent of jasmine may be strong, but the lure of democracy is even stronger and it must be encouraged.