Nowhere has this been more true than in Mubarak’s Egypt, Ben Ali’s Tunisia or Gaddafi’s Libya. For too long, these respective dictatorships have been tolerated or even supported by Western democracies, anxious to preserve “stability” and fearing “Islamism”.
The threat of militant Islam was always an exaggerated one and was cynically manipulated by the likes of Mubarak especially to strengthen his position. The alternative to dictatorship is instability and Islamism, so the argument went. And as the United States and other powers bought into this argument, the North African dictators’ control over their people increased. Oppression ruled while democracy died.
The Bush administration claimed it sought to cultivate democracy in the Middle East, while pursuing a foreign policy that only increased the possibilities for radical Islam - making previously insignificant and unpopular groups such as al-Qaeda into vehicles through which frustrated people could express their grievances at American interventionism. Not only did Bush’s tactics make for a more serious “Islamic threat”, effectively becoming a recruitment sergeant for radical Islamic groups, they also failed to facilitate a move towards democracy.
For too long in its reporting on Middle Eastern matters, Western correspondents have focused their attention on the “war against terror”, the major personalities (such as Hussein, Mubarak, etc.) and their relationship with the US and UK governments, and the Arab-Israeli issue (falsely supposing that is what is foremost in most people’s minds in the region). Ordinary people and their plight have been completely forgotten. The mass unemployment, brutal oppression and growing discontent were all ignored.
The struggle for freedom has not suddenly been born in 2011; there have been people championing democracy in Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Algeria for years – they were usually imprisoned for it. But in recent weeks, the popular uprisings have gathered such momentum that the spread of democracy now seems unstoppable.
It is right that it has not been the US, the UK or the EU which have brought down the corrupt and repressive regimes of Ben Ali and Mubarak - and almost certainly Gaddafi. The only thing that could have ever brought true democracy to the Middle East and North Africa was the courage of brave people who dared to fight. And they have fought, although sadly freedom has come at a price of several hundred lives. The west did not expect this eventuality, simply because our media were never too interested in understanding the realities of the hardships people were suffering and failed to appreciate that pent-up frustrations would eventually find a way of expressing themselves. Their understandings of the Arab world centred around Western policy initiatives to such a degree that the growing frustration with the status quo was never perceived. The European and American press was as blind to the concerns of North Africa's people and their potential for protest as Mubarak and Ben Ali were to the dawning revolution.
All that has now changed. The people of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain, for so long silenced, have now found a voice. The rest of the world looks on in stunned disbelief, hoping that those people so recently liberated from oppressive regimes will be able to shape a new, democratic future for the region.
The British news continues to report on the position of Muammar Gaddafi. While it is important for Libya that Gaddafi’s demise is complete and imminent, the emphasis is wrong. Gaddafi now has no future. But Libya does, and so does its courageous people.
I hope their freedom will soon be complete, and that Libyans – like Tunisans and Egyptians – can begin to build a new future for their country.
If I can close by paraphrasing the great Martin Luther King:
So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of Yemen. Let freedom ring from the Atlas mountains of Morocco. Let freedom ring from the heightening Tebessas of Tunisia!
Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Aurès of Algeria!
Let freedom ring from the Asirs of Saudi Arabia!
But not only that; let freedom ring from Zagros Mountains of Iran!
Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of us, black men and white men, Arabs and Christians, will be able to join hands and sing "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"