The Arab Spring is 2011, Not 1989

The Arab revolutions are beginning to destroy the cliché of an Arab world incapable of democratic transformation. But another caricature is replacing it: according to the new narrative, the crowds in Cairo, Benghazi or Damascus, mobilized by Facebook and Twitter, are the latest illustration of the spread of Western democratic ideals; and while the “rise of the rest” may challenge the economic dominance of Western nations, the West will continue to define the political agenda of the world.

In that optimistic scenario, 1989 and 2011 are two chapters of the same story, which connect in a self-congratulatory way the political appeal of democracy and the transformative power of entrepreneurship and new technologies.

In reality, the movements that are shaking the Arab world are profoundly different from the revolutions that ended the Soviet empire. The Arab spring is about justice and equity as much as it is about democracy, because societies in which millions of young men and women have no jobs — and millions live with less than two dollars a day — crave justice as much as democracy.

As I heard one experienced Arab diplomat say, today’s revolutions are against “profiteers” as much as they are against dictators. The movements are also profoundly suspicious of foreign interference, and Western nations, which for many years have had a cozy relationship with dictators and profiteers, will be utilized, but they are unlikely to be trusted or to serve as models as they were in 1989.

The implications for our Middle Eastern policies are wide-ranging. The good news is that the focus on social justice and practical issues of development and redistribution has the potential to move the public debate further away from dreams of a return to the mythical past of the caliphate promoted by radical Islamists.

In the words of the French scholar Olivier Roy, the Arab revolutions may well become the first “post-Islamist” revolutions. But that will happen only if we in the West accept that Muslim values — which have, like Christian or Jewish values, many interpretations — can become part of the political debate, without being at the center of it.

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.