The Middle East is in turmoil and yet here’s the Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, speaking a few days ago in Greece, on what he thinks the region should look like. Nearly everything is reactive and the “peace process” between Israel and the Palestinians should continue as if it’s nearly achieved resolution.
Somebody should tell Australia that Tehran isn’t the main issue in the Middle East (despite what Tel Aviv and Washington is telling them):
We believe that Egypt needs fundamental political reform beginning now. We also believe that this process of reform must be delivered peacefully.
We are therefore deeply concerned at the violence that erupted today in Tahrir Square. This sort of violence is an anathema to Australians and we deplore it.
We call on the Egyptian authorities to ensure its people are able to undertake their peaceful protest safely. We again call on the Government to exercise maximum restraint and respond to peaceful protests without violence.
I conveyed directly to the Secretary-General of the Arab League Amr Moussa my concerns about this violence. He too was very concerned by today’s events.
Difficult and dangerous days lie ahead in Egypt. Around a million people took to the streets of Cairo yesterday. Many will take to the streets again on Friday.
The Government and the people of Egypt have been presented with an historic opportunity to engineer peaceful democratic transformation — creating a modern democracy out of this most ancient land.
More broadly across the Arab world, the forces of democratic transformation are also at work. These forces run headlong into the two, well established stereotypes of what has hitherto been believed to be politically possible in the Arab world.
One such stereotype is, that given the challenges of governance in the countries of the region, the only workable political system is an authoritarian dictatorship.
The other is that if you lift a lid on democracy, you open up the possibility of an Iranian-style revolution and a creation of an Islamist state.
The people on the streets of Cairo appear to be calling for another way: a democratic system of government capable of embracing a multiplicity of views within its political system.
This appears to be very much a popular movement from below — led by young people whose names by and large are unknown to the outside world; people whose incomes have not risen in recent years because economic growth has been so thin; an intellectual class which has long sought greater freedom of expression; by both new and long-standing opposition political figures who have often been in conflict with one another in the past; as well as those who are calling for a more central role for Islam in what since Nasser has been a secular Arab state.
The difficult challenge ahead lies in how these disparate elements might be melded together into a pluralist democracy while preventing radical Islamists from snuffing out the pluralist voices of the people.
While this represents a difficult challenge, more difficult is the prospect of hanging on indefinitely to the political absolutism of the past.
Political reform is necessary in the wider Arab world — although ultimately it’s a matter for the Arab peoples themselves to determine its shape.
The Arab peoples are no different to others in the world who have found their democratic voice in recent decades — across Latin America, across Indonesia, across the former states of the Eastern bloc and across other parts of the world.
In Australia, we hold democracy to be a universal value — not one which is particular to one culture, one people or one set of intellectual traditions.
There is a basic animating principle of freedom to which all peoples strive — the freedom of political expression; accompanied also by economic freedom to unleash the full potential of all people.
This does not mean that the State has no role in maintaining law and order or in regulating economies. But it does mean that these constraints must be bound constitutionally in order to offer genuine freedom to peoples everywhere as the proper condition of humankind.
Events in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world also have potentially profound implications for the Middle East peace process. It is possible that new democratic voices unleashed in Egypt and elsewhere will begin to challenge many of the assumptions underpinning the traditional views of moderate Arab states such as Egypt, Jordan and even Saudi Arabia.
In other words, the geopolitics of what flows to the region from the streets of Cairo are likely to have significant implications on the current state of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Many of us who are friends of Israel and friends of the Palestinian people are familiar with the broad architecture of a comprehensive settlement which would create a two state solution — an independent and secure Israeli state and an independent and secure Palestinian state.
These elements include the 1967 borders, with mutually agreed land swaps; the question of the right of return; the question of Jerusalem and the holy sites; as well as necessary security guarantees.
Ultimately this is a question of course for Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to resolve because what is at stake is the future of their respective homelands.
Given the possibility of opportunistic actions by Iran in the light of the political changes currently underway in Egypt and other parts of the Arab world; it therefore becomes more imperative than ever to bring the Middle East peace negotiations to a successful conclusion.
There is political capacity for this to be achieved on both sides of the negotiation table.
From Israel’s perspective reaching such an agreement holds out the prospect of greater security for Israel and its people, and recognition and respect from its neighbours and the wider world.
Reaching such an agreement also holds the potential to transform the Arab world into an open market for Israeli goods and services, helping grow the Israeli economy as well as helping grow the economies and employment opportunities among its neighbours.
For the Palestinians, an independent and secure state would also enable its Government to get on with the task of improving the lot of its people.
And for the region at large, it would remove the Israel/Palestine question as the regional rallying point around which Iran seeks to bolster its political and diplomatic standing.
The governments of the region are carefully analysing the possible strategic consequences of what now unfolds from political reform on the streets of Cairo.