It is now clear that the status quo in the region will not hold. The idea of “strong man” government — a regime that maintains order, and that the rest of the world likes to deal with because it is predictable — has gone. It does not matter whether the “strong man” is a psychopath, like former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, or a moderate, like former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who kept peace in the region. This is the 21st century and ordinary people want to shape their country’s politics. The choice is between evolution and revolution.
Evolution, if attainable, is clearly preferable. Frankly, Syria would have been better for it. People have had a taste of politics conducted by firestorm. Across the region, there is fatigue with the wildness and disorder that politics conducted by firestorm brings. There is growing recognition that change is best accompanied by stability, and that democracy works only if debate is conducted in an atmosphere in which arguments can be bold, even harsh, but not inflammatory.
There is also a burgeoning acceptance that religious freedom is a necessary part of free and open societies. The discussion about religion’s role in government and society is now out in the open. This is enormously important and healthy. For the first time, there is lively and intelligent debate around this issue, which is at the core of the Middle East’s problems.
Open societies are incompatible with closed economies. A functioning private sector that creates adequate jobs and schools that educate the large young population for today’s inter-
connected world, are prerequisites of progress.
The Israeli-Palestinian issue is crucial for all the obvious reasons, but it is also a test of the region’s capacity to forge a different and better future. If these two peoples can find common ground to create two states, both democratic and free, after decades of bitterness and bloodshed, the region would have an enormously powerful model of hope.
The opening of the peace talks in Washington would not have happened without the full engagement of the US and other international partners. This is the lesson that we should bear in mind as Syria disintegrates before our eyes. However much we may wish to look away, the consequences of allowing the bloodbath in Syria to take its own course may well be disastrous for the region and for the West’s security.
Surely we can begin to see certain common threads running through the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Arab revolutions, Iran, Syria, Egypt and the spread of terror based on religious extremism. One concerns how states emerge from years of repression to build institutions capable of responding to the needs of the modern world. Another — plainly linked — is Muslim-majority countries’ efforts to define the relationship between religion and politics. The entire world has a massive interest in where these threads lead.
Tony Blair, a former British prime minister, is special envoy for the Middle East Quartet.
Copyright: Project Syndicate