Syria is a living nightmare. Egypt hovers on the brink. But as the opening of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority shows, there are signs of hope. And though it may seem counterintuitive, the region’s turmoil is finally bringing to the surface its fundamental problems in a way that allows them to be confronted and overcome. Now is a time not for despair, but for active engagement.
No one put the chances of reviving the Israel-Palestine peace process at more than minimal. Yet it has happened. And these are not talks about talks, but a full-blown revival of final-status negotiations, with an undertaking by both parties to remain in the process for at least nine months.
To those of us who have toiled, often fruitlessly, on this issue in the past, it is a huge achievement brought about by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s sheer dogged determination and the willingness of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to take political risks with their domestic public opinion.
Much less noted was the visit of Yemen’s president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, to Washington. Against all the odds, Yemen is undergoing a process of political transformation, with 500 delegates from all parts of society working on plans for democracy, justice, and equality.
In Iraq, after years of declining sectarian violence, the casualty figures are up again, in part owing to the war in neighboring Syria. Yet, even in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country’s most influential Shiite cleric, recently issued a seminal statement proclaiming the need for a civil, not religious state, with equal freedom for all to participate. Sistani also expressed disagreement with those close to Iran who want Shiite to go to Syria to fight for Bashar Assad’s regime alongside Hezbollah.
Similarly, at the start of Ramadan, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who is also the custodian of the two holy mosques, made a powerful statement reclaiming the faith of Islam from those who would pervert it in the name of politics.
Libya and Tunisia are far from settled, as the recent assassination of Tunisia’s leading opposition politician and the presence of unrestrained militia in Libyan towns show. But the democrats are not giving up.
Across the northern part of Sub-Saharan Africa, there are now huge challenges from well-armed and well-financed terrorist groups that have imported toxic Islamist ideology from the Middle East. Countries such as Nigeria, for example, have suffered horribly from terrorism based on a brand of religious extremism that is alien to their society. But, again, despite it all, the country is experiencing rapid economic growth and has just implemented a major reform — widely considered impossible until recently — of the power sector.
Meanwhile, with a genuinely inclusive and objectively administered constitution, Egypt could pivot back toward democracy. Elections by early 2014 have been promised, and all parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood, could take part.
Or Egypt could become paralyzed and unable to rectify its dire economic situation and restore order, without which no progress is possible.
But Egypt’s internal divisions reveal a deeper awakening in the region that has its own significance. Lessons about government, governance, and democracy that took the West centuries to learn are being taken in at extraordinary speed.
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 doesn’t matter whether the “strong man” is a psychopath, like Saddam Hussein, or a moderate, like 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 obvious reasons. 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 will have a powerful model of hope.
But the opening of the peace talks in Washington would not have happened without the full engagement of the U.S. 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, U.K. prime minister from 1997 to 2007, is special envoy for the Middle East Quartet. © 2013 Project Syndicate