The Arab Spring after 9/11

As I watched the coverage and read the commentary around the 9/11 anniversary last week, I was struck anew by the profound changes that have swept the region this year.

By Alistair Burt (Perspective)

Published: Wed 21 Sep 2011, 9:15 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 9:56 AM

There is no doubt that September the eleventh was the high point for Al Qaeda. They grabbed the world’s headlines with a shocking act of violence and hatred. There were other outrages—in 2005 my own country was attacked and 51 ordinary people travelling to work on public transport were killed. But Al Qaeda never again managed anything like that day in New York. Their declared enemy has been the West, but they have not had a major success there for some years now and those they have killed since nine-eleven have been overwhelmingly Muslim. However, while Al Qaeda may have retained some ability to terrorise, 10 years after the attacks on New York, they have almost completely lost their ability to inspire. I believe that they were always doomed to fail because their ideology was negative. They sought to capitalise on a sense of injustice but did so by appealing to feelings of hatred and despair.

Their ideology was in steady decline in Muslim nations but history will record that what signalled the irrevocable demise of Al Qaeda in 2011 was not the death of Osama bin Laden – although this was hugely symbolic—but the Arab Spring which has shown Al Qaeda to be utterly irrelevant to people across the Middle East and North Africa. Over the past seven months, hundreds of thousands of people have channelled their feelings of despair and injustice into peaceful protest. They have sought positive, tangible ends – greater political and economic freedom, respect for the rights of all and for the rule of law, an end to corrupt government. And unlike the terrorists, the protestors have had real impact, in country after country of the region. In Tunisia and Egypt, autocratic governments have been overthrown and democratic processes set in train. In Cairo ex-president Mubarak is now on trial, and in Tunis the first-ever democratic elections will be held next month. In Libya, Gaddafi’s despotic regime has been overthrown and the National Transitional Council is creating a government that better represents the will of ordinary Libyans. In Jordan, King Abdullah has set out a vision for a democratic society, and also pledged economic reform. And there have been reforms in Morocco. Injustice and despair is being replaced by hope and dignity across the region.

A few days after the anniversary, Al Qaeda released a video claiming that the Arab Spring is an uprising by the Ummah against the West, and tried to claim credit for it. It reminded me of old, retired Generals who in the 1990’s were unable to comprehend the revolutions in Eastern Europe and were, in their own minds, still fighting the old Cold War. Just so, the leaders of Al Qaeda cannot understand that people in the Middle East saw the true expression of their aspirations not at Ground Zero in New York in 2001, but in Sidi Bouzid and Tahrir Square in 2011.

That’s not to say that the West should be complacent about its relationship with the Arab or Muslim world. There is still much healing to be done, and as we close the chapter on a decade of jihadist inspired terrorism, we must begin the new one by building a new relationship of mutual trust, dignity and respect between East and West.

In doing so we must strike an important balance. We believe that there can be no lasting peace, no long-term success, without fundamental reform. And we will stand true to our values. We will not accept corruption and economic mismanagement as the necessary price for stability, or expect people to be satisfied with false promises and cosmetic reforms. Instead we will support those urging genuine reform, including those already within governments, so that future generations look forward with hope and not despair. But these revolutions are not ours to try and shape or control, and ultimately it is for the people of the region to determine their own future.

Of course, a new era for the Middle East cannot truly begin until Israelis and Palestinians reach a negotiated settlement. That this terrible wound remains open is in my view the greatest diplomatic failure of the last 50 years. Israelis and Palestinians also demand respect and freedom – be it freedom from the threat of destruction or freedom from occupation. I hope that the new era ushered in by the Arab Spring can be marked by a concerted effort by Arab and Western countries to get both sides talking again. All eyes will again be on New York this week where many people are expecting a vote on Palestinian statehood. I believe that the true solution and the true realisation of a peaceful, prosperous Middle East is to be found not in New York but back in the streets and squares – and around the negotiating tables – of the region itself.

Alistair Burt is FCO Minster for Middle East & North Africa

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