When Hosni Mubarak announced his resignation, I tuned to Rossiya 24, Russia's 24/7 all news channel and immediately hit upon a live interview with my former ambassador in Yemen, who also later represented Russia in Tunisia.
Ambassador Veniamin Popov is now teaching at the Moscow Institute of International Relations. Among a lot of very insightful observations about the nature of the Egyptian events, Mr, Popov ventured an opinion, that what we have seen is the twilight of the Western influence in the Middle East as we knew it before. His argument is that the Americans and Europeans have supported the secular Arab autocrats for too long and in a new age of democracy will face a much more hostile public opinion in the Arab countries.
Together with the a much more reticent and apprehensive attitude to the West, Ambassador Popov argued, will come a new round of Arab-Israeli tensions, if not outright hostility, especially if Egypt abrogates the 1979 peace treaty with the Jewish state. This is exactly the fears that are articulated now sotto voce in Washington, and quite openly in Israel.
I do not entirely agree with this. Such a scenario is indeed a possibility if radical Islamists take over in Cairo completely and start dictating their agenda. For now, though, this doesn't seem to be likely. The Egyptian army seems to be more or less firmly in control of the situation and still possesses enough authority in society at large to maintain basic law and order. More than a billion dollars in US aid is something that no one in the top echelons of the armed forces wants to ditch.
Also it doesn't look like all those people in the Tahrir Square were craving for a religious dictatorship. Egypt has a certain tradition of party politics and the Muslim Brotherhood, influential as it is, is not the only game in town. It is actually much more plausible that the Islamist project will appreciate in value if the secular and democratic one drowns in corruption and petty rivalries, as it happened already in the Arab world in the 1940s, 50s and 60s.
This much more of a danger than any a Brotherhood coup – disillusionment after a failed experiment. The clannish, family nature of Arab societies breeds corruption and blots out the notion of common good. That, in turn, produces cynicism or radicalism – the two bastard children of politically dysfunctional societies. In my view, an attempt at democratic development in the current Arab climate is historically inevitable, although I am the first to admit that positive results are by no means guaranteed. Egypt's success or failure will be crucial for the future of the broader region. The West – and Russia – should not stand on the sidelines and bemoan the loss of mubarkas and ben alis. Too late.
This is the time to show that the West adheres to its own principles – even if it means losing a bit of influence in the short term. The Arabs, as opposed to Westerners, are still electrified by powerful ideas and will look towards the U.S. and Europe for support. Even if we might not like some of their choices these choices should be theirs, and theirs alone. Trying to deny this choice will eventually be strategically more harmful than the potentially unpleasant consequences it could bring.
The main mistake that the West could commit is to rely on a new set of autocratic figures with no democratic legitimacy to restore the status quo ante. In the current climate this could deal a blow to Western influence in the region which would be much bigger than one caused by Hosni Mubarak's reluctant departure.
The same goes for Israel. Cautiousness is a good diplomatic quality, but timely recognition that times have changed is in the order of the day. The Israelis cannot continue to hold the palm of the region's only true democracy (which is true), and think that its neighbours have to be denied it in perpetuity. It will be a risky gamble but the Israelis should start sending more clear signals to the Arab democrats – even if these democrats tend to dislike Israel. Demonizing Israel as a source of all evil and problems was and still is a function of deflecting attention from domestic problems, a ruse successfully used by a succession of Arab autocrats, including the Assad family, Muammar Gaddafi and the late Saddam Hussein. It is in Israel's interest to undermine this practice by being bold and true to its own founding principles.
The West still has an enormous potential of political, economic, military and cultural influence in the Middle East. The Arabs often hate the West for the same reason the Russians do – their inability to successfully follow the Western example. This is the time to acknowledge this reality well known to those familiar with the region and start acting on this acknowledgement.
What an irony of history, that probably the only Arab republic where no one was taking to the streets to protest against the government in recent weeks was Iraq. Having finished listening to Ambassador Popov, I went to YouTube and found a speech by George W. Bush at the World Economic Forum a few years ago. In it he warned the Arab rulers that democracy will inevitably knock on their doors so it is better to start working on it, before it is too late. I wonder whether the much maligned president Bush will have the last laugh when the dust of the current turmoil in the Middle East finally settles?
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is an independent Russian journalist and political analyst. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.