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As all of you will know, over the past month the Middle East and North Africa has been in turmoil – riots breaking out, million-strong protests against the governments and dramatic changes in the leadership of several of these countries. In Egypt, this has led to the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, leader of the country for almost 30 years, and in Tunisia President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has fled the country. This appears, on the surface, to be a positive step – the people of the Middle East are making their way from political systems based around the domination of the government to one in which, hopefully, the ordinary Egyptian and Tunisian people will be better represented and have a greater freedom and level of human rights.
This does not mean that there will be no complications. The Egyptian Armed Forces Supreme Council have taken power, dissolved parliament and the constitution, and have taken it upon themselves to maintain order until the new general election in six months, at the same time as investigating the Egyptian legal system and reforming the government. Although there is a need to maintain order in Egypt, and the fact that these major political issues in Egypt need to be addressed, part of me is very sceptical about these developments – although the freeing of the press and ending of propaganda are, in my opinion, entirely good things, I always feel suspicious when the military takes over the day-to-day running of a country, as quite often they can be reluctant to let go of their newly-gained power when the time comes, at the end of the day. I am, however, optimistic that the Egyptian and Tunisian states will continue to develop and become more open with their citizens, and ultimately serve them, instead of just the elite sitting at the top of the metaphorical pyramid.
In Libya, however, the situation is steadily getting worse and worse, with reports of the military firing on protesters, and as of the time of writing two fighter pilots had reportedly defected to Malta in response to orders to bomb citizens, having come close enough to carrying out their mission that they had seen the protesters on the ground. It appears that Colonel Gaddafi is willing to do anything to hold onto power, no matter the cost in lives, including his own. There is also the issue of Iran, where there have also been crackdowns on protesters, as well as calls for the execution of opposition government members, who have called for these protests to occur. They have also attempted to distance themselves from the reasons for the protests, instead placing the blame on western spies attempting to destabilise the region. There is a fear that, should other nations undergoing protests follow suit, the number of lives lost throughout the Middle East could be staggering, and throughout the world there have been calls by leaders, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, to curb violence and ensure that everyone remains peaceful.
I do, however, believe that leaders in the west have been slow to denounce the governments and support protesters. Many of the North African leaders, such as Mubarak and Gaddafi, have been supported by western leaders because they provide stability for their nations, even if ideologically they are at odds with western values. I can understand that President Obama didn’t wish to jeopardise 30 years of relations with Egypt, but this does not make it any more right. Obama was too slow to condemn Mubarak’s attempts to hold onto power, which would have been a powerful political gesture and encouraged further protest, perhaps removing him even earlier.
Although I have these fears, this does not mean that I don’t feel the protests to be worthwhile – The fact that the people of the Middle East and North Africa are willing to risk their own lives in order to gain greater freedom for their country and future generations is something that I admire, and I am thankful for the decision of the two Libyan pilots to defect instead of carry out their order to kill protesters, and hope that more people will stand up and refuse to carry out threats of violence on ordinary citizens. I hope that there is a lasting knock-on effect from these protests and that it provides the incentive for many middle-eastern nations to reform and crack down on issues such as corruption, which have been a major target for protests in Iraq, and the detention of prisoners without trial in Saudi Arabia.
All in all, these protests can be seen as a force for good – the people of the Middle East and North Africa are finally holding their governments to account, and demanding more from them in terms of human rights, a renewed fight against government corruption and freedom of speech. They are striving for a society that they want, not one that is forced upon them. However, people need to remain cautious of the situation, for despite the progress, everything could change at the drop of a hat. As Nelson Mandela said, there is no easy walk to freedom, but we can feel happy that the people of North Africa are beginning their slow slog towards their goal.