“The United Kingdom is convinced that the Arab Spring is a force for good,” William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, told an IPI audience while hosting a panel entitled “Activism to Accountability in the Middle East” on March 12.
“The United Nations and its member states must continue to work together in supporting the people of the region as they demand their legitimate rights,” he said.
Mr. Hague spoke of the important role of social media now in shaping activism. “The Arab Spring is, by its very nature, a particularly 21st century phenomenon,” he said. “Social media was able to carry a cascade of messages about freedom and democracy across North Africa and the Middle East, and helped raise expectations for the success of political uprisings. In its essence, social media became a critical part of the toolkit for greater freedom.”
Arguing that it had allowed civil society to shape the political debate in many countries for the first time he said, “This is something that is hugely welcome, that we should be in favor of. Space for more varied and independent media should be emerging.” He continued, “When plural voices are heard, different views aired and diverse interests represented, it provides a balance in society.”
“It is not going to be a straightforward journey, there will be plenty of bumps on the road,” he warned.
He noted that the international community must remain engaged. “Our support and dedication to the people of the region must be consistent and unwavering. I have been amazed by the strength and bravery of activists, lawyers, bloggers, journalists, and indeed, citizens from every walk of life who have led change,” he said. “Their enthusiasm and dynamism must be met by our own commitment and resolve.”
Finally, he said that we must support the principle that the people of the region must choose their leaders, even knowing that we may have to deal with governments whom we may not always agree with.
The other speakers on the panel were Nora Younis, Egyptian activist and Website Managing Editor of Al-Masry Al-Youm; and Salwa Bugaighis, a Libyan human rights lawyer.
Ms. Younis spoke about the role of peaceful protest in bringing about change, recounting stories of her confronting Hosni Mubarak’s state security forces as far back as 2005. She also explained that there is a vibrant civil society movement in Egypt today. These groups are carrying on the spirit of the revolution, different groups using innovative tactics to hold the military government and newly-elected legislature accountable. She said, “You ask for the solidarity of the people, and you make pressure and you win your right back with your own hands.”
Ms. Bugaighis spoke about the legacy of the Qaddafi regime, outlining how he used state institutions and resource wealth to manipulate and exercise control over Libyans’ lives. As a result, today Libya’s infrastructure and development are far below its potential. “Libya today faces enormous challenges to rebuild a rational, viable economy, and move away with a full reliance on oil income,” she said. Thanking the world for last year’s intervention, she said that international help is needed to help put the country on a path to sustainable development.
Providing closing remarks, IPI President Terje Rod-Larsen said that, with proper homework, we could have predicted the Arab Spring. He also warned of romanticizing a “naive idea of democracy,” reminding the audience that the 1988 revolutions in Eastern Europe faced many problems. He said that the Arab countries must be provided regional institutional incentives for liberalization, which will be key to successful transitions.
The panel was moderated by Barbara Plett, the BBC’s UN Correspondent.
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