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Middle East and Africa

Towards democracies in Arab version

‘The Arab revolutions which inflamed the Arab world in 2011 represent an epochal change and the historians of the future will look back at 2011 as a watershed year. It is of course an evolution that has not yet come to an end and will not end as long as the armed forces control the political system, which is what the Egyptian people is experiencing. Observing the revolutions from an historical perspective, it can be seen how they are always complex phenomena; it suffices to think of the revolutions in Russia and France and how long their periods of instability lasted. We must not expect that things in the Arab world proceed more quickly than those in the past’. This is the firm belief of professor Eugene Rogan, Director of the Middle East Centre at Oxford University and professor of Modern History at St. Anthony College, and who Oasis met during a public conference entitled “Reflections on Year 1 of the Arab Revolutions”, held in Venice at the end of March.



According to Rogan, what is happening also concerns the West, which finds itself having to make choices in the sphere of foreign politics: ‘The Arab revolutions place the rulers of the Western countries before the tension between their material interests and values. They will be called upon to choose whether to support the local leaders who have the consensus of their people or reliable but despotic satraps. In all likelihood to have leaders in the long term who enjoy the consensus of the population will lead to a greater stability of the Middle Eastern area’.


With regard to the conviction of those who consider that the wind of the Arab spring might also hit other areas of the world, Africa or China for example, Rogan has expressed his reserve by giving the example of Poland at the end of the 80s. Even though the Polish spring had very quickly spread to the whole of Eastern Europe, it did not reach the countries of other geographical regions which, in that same period, were ruled by dictatorships: ‘In that period – pointed out Rogan – the Arab world saw what was happening in Poland but, in fact, if we consider the actual repercussions of those events on the Middle Eastern regimes, it is as if they had taken place on another planet’.



With regard to the future of Tunisia and Egypt, where the Islamists have won the elections arousing fears in some Westerners that Islamic states might be born based on the models of Iran or Saudi Arabia, the professor replied by forecasting that the Islamists will know how to adapt to the rules of the game imposed by a very different society from the one in the 60s and 70s. A society that instead today is asking for dignity, rights and democracy: ‘The message that the Islamists are trying to send to their people and the international community is their commitment to the respect of the new rules of the game and the protection of the rights of the minorities’. The professor explains this new commitment on the part of the Islamists as the outcome of years of exclusion from political power which they had to endure in numerous countries. In Egypt for example, the Muslim Brotherhood was persecuted for many years and is today concerned with keeping their position through national consensus. Rogan is optimistic in this sense: for him the Islamists will be capable of finding a middle way between democracy understood in the Western sense and the dictatorship that ruled in those countries in the last 50 years. At the same time however, Rogan warns the West of the somewhat widespread tendency to apply our political categories to the Arab world: ‘The Arabs do not love the word democracy, a foreign term that implies many typically Western associations. What they are negotiating are the rights and freedoms that we consider an integral part of democracy. The West is asking itself whether they will have a democracy as we mean it. The democracy that will appear in Egypt will reflect Egyptian values, just as the Italian democracy reflects the values of Italy.



The West continues to speak about democracy as if only one type existed. But it suffices to think of how many types of democracy exist in Europe, each one of which reflects the particular historical conditions of the country in which it is born. In Egypt too, the democracy that is born will be the consequence of the local historical experience’.