The West’s Takeaway From Tahrir Square

In my encounters with the Middle East, as a foreign minister and chair of the international donor support group to the Palestinian authority, I often run into a widely accepted Western narrative: that all bottom-up movements in Arab countries will lead to radical Islamist regimes.

Possessing a long and problematic history, the notion emerged particularly strongly in response to the Iranian revolution in 1979 and solidified into something akin to an orthodox doctrine in the context of 9/11.

This common wisdom has had serious consequences. It has encouraged us to view all popular movements in the Arab world, secular or Islamic, as dangerous windows to militant Islam. It leads us to think that authoritarian leaders may be the lesser of two evils.

And it has underpinned the assertion that we should not deal with any group that smacks of Islam. Consequently, we have been reluctant to support democratic movements in the way that we do in other parts of the world.

In the international debate on the Tahrir Square uprising, this perspective again came to the fore. I too believe it is critical to get things right in Egypt. However, I also believe that the events in Egypt and Tunisia invite us to seriously reconsider the common narrative of popular uprisings in the Middle East.

These events demonstrate that the communications revolution of the past decade has changed politics. It has heightened the influence of ad hoc and secular popular movements in countries without democratic institutions. It has created networks of movements not led by any single group or ideology. This is especially significant in the Middle East, with its many authoritarian regimes, young populations striving for a better life and one common language.

Moreover, these uprisings also illustrate that the Islamist world is not reducible to the common stereotype. The uprising is neither controlled by Islamic groups nor based primarily on Islamist sentiments. And even the Islamist movements involved seem to be far more pragmatic than the dominant western image would suggest.

This context is true beyond Egypt as well. Many Islamic societies have young populations with access to new information technology and a more global outlook. Many have moderate and constructive Islamic factions. And while fundamentalist and radical Islamic groups obviously exist, they often gain strength from being targeted by domestic regimes and by anxious Western analyses that cast them as central players.

So, what are the lessons that we, as practitioners of international politics, should take away from Tahrir Square?

•We need to actively refute the popular stereotype that all contemporary political movements in the Arab world contain dangerous Islamist sentiments. We cannot keep basing our policy on the fear that everything will repeat Iran 1979 or open up another fertile ground for Al Qaeda. Instead, we need to become more skilled at distinguishing between our stereotypes and the actual empirical reality on the ground.

•The West’s policy in the Middle East needs to respond to the fact that the future of the region will be increasingly shaped by voices coming out of a young, pluralistic civil society. As we have seen, many governments in the Middle East have major problems interpreting and responding to signals sent by civil society. But we in the West also need to improve our ability to do so.

As Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s able state-building process underlines, peace processes cannot solely focus on elite negotiations. We need political solutions that are anchored in the popular level: economic development, health promotion, institution-building and on-the-ground peace-supporting initiatives. Doing this means we take “the people” in the Middle East as seriously as we do in our own democratic contexts.

•Finally, we need to see the importance of political dialogue with groups that are different from us. Such a dialogue is a crucial tool in a world in which information technology gives the voice of diffuse groups much more influence. Given the situation today, would it not have been valuable to have engaged the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups in a critical dialogue earlier?

I believe it would be a grave mistake to allow our judgment of the democratic capacities of the Arab world to be based on our worst fears. At the very least, we must ensure that negative stereotypes don’t distort our policies. And in doing so, perhaps we can help youthful and optimistic non-Western populations to flourish in accordance with the essential human rights that they too deserve.

By Jonas Gahr Store, Norway’s minister of foreign affairs.

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