The new Arab revolt

The uprisings in the Middle East are both momentous and revolutionary. It’s time for the west to acc

Unprecedented. Revolutionary. Momentous. Most of us have struggled to find words to describe the upheavals in the Middle East, which began in Tunisia on 17 December with the Jasmine Revolution. Unrest soon spread to Egypt, where tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Tahrir Square, Cairo, on 25 January to call for President Hosni Mubarak - who secured a fifth term in 2005 in an election widely condemned for its "irregularities" - to stand down after 30 long years in power.

The Arab world is in turmoil. There have been demonstrations in Algeria, Sudan, Yemen, Jordan and Syria. The region's dictators, despots and kleptocrats are in a state of panic. King Abdullah, the octogenarian absolute ruler of Saudi Arabia, called the Egyptian president to offer his unconditional support. And King Abdullah II of Jordan has sacked his cabinet and pledged "democratic" reforms.

The age of autocracy in the Middle East could be drawing to a close. But what happens next? In the following five pages, the New Statesman asks what the future might hold for Egypt, the wider region and western foreign policy.

Some fear that groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt will move in to fill the vacuum. Free and fair elections in the Middle East tend to empower Islamists - Hamas in the Palestinian territories, for example - much to the chagrin of US neoconservatives, as Mehdi Hasan comments.

The Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan, grandson of the Muslim Brotherhood's founder, Hassan al-Banna, says (see page 25) that the Islamist movement "must be a full partner in the process of change. . . The Brotherhood's political thinking has evolved considerably over the past 20 years."

Others believe that there is nothing religious about these uprisings. Among them is Maajid Nawaz (page 26), director of the British counter-extremism think tank the Quilliam Foundation and a former Islamist who spent four years languishing inside prison cells in Egypt. A friend and supporter of the Egyptian opposition leaders, Nawaz believes that the next government will be secular and democratic. An Islamist takeover, he argues, is "an undesirable and unlikely result".

Like the popular revolution in Tunisia, the protests in Egypt have surprised and embarrassed the Obama administration. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's initial response, describing the Mubarak government as "stable", was abandoned. Within a week, she was demanding an "orderly transition" to democracy.

Americans have followed, not led, events. When President Obama's hand was forced, he urged that the transition "must be meaningful, it must be peaceful and it must begin now". Mubarak's offer to stand down at the next elections in September is too little, too late.

As Obama noted in his speech in Cairo in June 2009, free speech, democracy and the rule of law "are not just American ideas. They are human rights and that is why we will support them everywhere."

The courageous protesters on the streets of Alexandria, Cairo, Suez, Tunis and beyond deserve nothing less.

This article first appeared in the 07 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The New Arab Revolt