Superb essay in the NYT/IHT today from former UN undersecretary Jean-Marie Guehenno, who argues that the 2011 Arab Spring is not to be compared to the 1989 Berlin Wall revolution, but needs to be understood on its own terms, as a movement not just for democracy, but for human dignity and possibility. The author further makes important points about the role of the West, which can no longer be the central player in what must be a Middle Eastern - and Islamic - phenomenon. I paste a major chunk of the essay here:
The more we try to polarize secular forces against Islamic movements, the more unlikely it is that secular values will win. We must abandon the illusion that the defining issue in the region is a battle between moderates and hardliners. Europe and the United States could send a strong signal by ending their policy of “à la carte democracy” and start talking to movements such as Hamas or Hezbollah — which does not mean that we in any way agree with their views.
Bringing the Muslim Brotherhood and related organizations into mainstream politics rather than trying to isolate them should be a priority. This is all the more necessary as the aspiration to justice will lead to demands that the present élites — and in particular security establishments — relinquish their grip not only on power, but also on the economy, and that demand may eventually trigger a second wave of upheavals.
A more democratic Arab world is also likely to be less tolerant of the benign neglect with which the international community has often addressed the Israel-Palestine and the Israeli-Arab conflicts since 2000. That should not be seen as a threat by countries that support a resolution of the conflict in accordance with international law and a two-states solution, but it will require a “reset” of the policies of the last 10 years.
Lastly, as we discover that 2011 is not 1989, and that we are no more the trusted reference, we will have to navigate in unchartered waters: our engagement in Libya will probably have less moral clarity at the end than it has had at the start. Political processes will inevitably be messy, and we will be tempted, especially in oil-rich nations, to pick winners and manipulate outcomes.
That would be disastrous for our long-term standing: in a region whose future has repeatedly been decided by foreigners since the end of the Ottoman empire, outside powers will have to demonstrate that this time they are genuinely willing to support home-grown political processes.
The West has to accept that it is not the central player anymore. But it need not be an indifferent and passive spectator. Finding the balance between engagement and restraint will be the policy challenge of this new phase.
In Libya and possibly in some other situations, the active involvement of the United Nations to find a political solution may help us find that new balance by providing the impartiality and sufficient distance from great powers politics without which no political process will have a sustainable outcome.