Paul Rogers: Middle East paying the price of financial crisis

SPEAKING on the Today programme, the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said that what was happening in the Middle East was “the most important event so far of the 21st century, even compared to the financial crisis we have been through and its impact on world affairs”.

He went on to say that it will take 
years, maybe decades, to play out, and through that we have to keep our nerve in clearly supporting democracy, democratic institutions, promoting dialogue and there will be many setbacks in doing that”.

By any stretch of the imagination, these were strong words, implying that events in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere would have an impact right across the world and for many years to come, so what is the basis for such a forthright view? The Arab Awakening started two-and-a-half years ago with a sudden overthrow of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia. That was followed by the even more remarkable collapse of the Mubarak regime in Egypt, leading eventually to elections which brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power under the leadership of President Morsi.

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Elsewhere across the Middle East, there were very mixed results. In Morocco, the King speeded up reforms and this did much to prevent public unrest, whereas in Saudi Arabia salaries and pensions were raised as people were bought off, with little in the way of political reform. The Saudis also aided the Bahrain monarchy in suppressing dissent and initial demonstrations in Oman were put down but were followed by some concessions. Libya saw the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime, made possible by Nato action but the result has been persistent insecurity and the rise of numerous militias. Meanwhile, suppression of dissent in Syria led to a bitter civil war that has cost 100,000 lives and shows no sign of ending.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood government proved unable to be inclusive and was also incompetent, but it was an elected government and while the Army’s action against it were popular among many Egyptians, the rigour with which the Brotherhood is now being suppressed by the military is a huge cause of concern.

Looking at the Middle East as a whole, it is not a good outlook and many of the hopes of a transition to democracy have been dashed, at least for now. But there are two wider aspects that have to be considered in assessing the validity of Mr Hague’s comments. One is that when the Arab Awakening started, with its prospect of an end to autocracies and a transition to democracy, it was a very bad development for al-Qaida and other extreme Islamists. If it was by now showing signs of success then the al-Qaida movement would have been facing a massive setback and maybe even terminal decline.

Instead, al-Qaida propagandists can all too easily point to the suppression of dissent in Egypt and violent repression in Syria as proof that nonviolent change will get you nowhere and that the only way forward is the violent overthrow of autocracies and their replacement with “true” radical Islamist governance.

This is, at least in part, what is now driving the war in Syria where the strongest opposition to the Assad regime is coming from Islamist paramilitaries, much to the consternation of western governments. In Egypt, too, the propagandists will point to the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood, even though it sought a much more moderate form of Islamic governance than al-Qaida would wish.

All this means that what is happening in the Middle East really is of huge importance right across the world, and Mr Hague is surely correct to point this out. Yet there is another aspect that links in with what he had to say, and this is the comparison with the financial crisis, because there is actually a direct connection between that and the events now unfolding across the region.

While much of the motivation for public dissent in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and elsewhere over two years ago was disgust at the lack of freedom and the prevalence of autocratic control, there were other fundamental issues to address.

The two most important were the relative poverty and pervasive marginalisation of tens of millions of people and the fact that countries such as Tunisia and Egypt had had high birth rates leading to huge numbers of frustrated young people with few economic prospects. In the past five years this has been made worse by the very financial crisis to which Mr Hague refers, and it also means that any government coming to power across the Middle East has very high expectations to fulfil – something the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was not able to do.

In short, Mr Hague may be right in saying that events in the Middle East 
may have a greater world-wide impact than the financial crisis but another way of looking at it is that it is the combination of the two that is the real issue, and unless ways can be found to meet the challenge of the financial crisis, prospects for peace and stability in the Middle East are even worse than Mr Hague may believe.