Western reactions to the current upheavals in Middle Eastern countries appear to some degree perplexed. On the one hand, compassion demands action against the suppression by intolerant regimes. On the other hand, Islam is seen with caution, and any political change feared as it might allow extremists to take power or de-stabilize the region.
Western politicians enjoyed talking about human rights, but the context of cooperation with regimes left the impression that they were just an excuse to secure western interests. Until the revolution in Egypt succeeded, freedom and human rights were prices willingly paid in exchange for stability. This undermined Western credibility and led to the formula that "it all was only about the oil".
As much as this would be simplifying Western interactions with Middle Eastern countries, it would be dangerously simple to ingnore the benefits which stability brought. Stabilty was mostly enforced by regimes with little democratic legitimation, but from the Middle Eastern point of view, democracy is a luxury which can only be afforded if basic stability is available. Take Syria, for example: when Hafiz al-Assad took power in 1970, he ended a 20 years-period of instability and chaos. I believe many Syrians would agree that his iron rule was still better than the previous anarchy, even though it only permitted very slow development.
The historic context also explains the readiness of the "regimes" to use force, and the many conspiracy theories that view Western agents as reasons behind the revolutionary movements. One could say that we are now harvesting the toxic fruits of seeds planted in the colonial era that created fragile states which did not represent its people, but the imperial interests of foreign powers.
Consequently, there is very litte Western powers can now do. The examples of Iraq and Afghanistan illustrate how difficult, if not impossible, it is to enforce development and democracy. The history of regime change in the Middle East was usually characterized by one repressive group taking power from another one after violent confrontations. I think it is likely that a military victory of rebel groups in Libya, and perhaps Syria, will have the same outcome. There will be losing groups who will form a new core of opposition that will be suppressed with force. In fact, this might be the best possible outcome of the NATO mission in Afghanistan, and it remains to be seen how the fragile cohesion between the different ethnic groups in Iraq will develop when the last US forces have left.
However, I am hopeful that Egypt and Tunisia might in contrast enter developments towards more democracy, since their revolutions were peaceful and might benefit the largest parts of the populations. Apart from the clans of the former presidents, there might be no real losers, and the newly acquired freedom of speech might allow the countries' problems to be tackled better than before. Crucial factors for these promising perspectives were the good education of relatively large parts of the population, and the professional and stabilising role played by the military.
These are not the results of short-term interventions, but of long-term development. If we want to see positive regime changes in Libya, Syria, or other countries like Iran, we must start to build the foundations now in order to harvest results in 20 or 30 years. Such policies should aim at reducing tensions and fears, replacing them with cooperation for development. Comparing developments in the Middle East with the example of the Soviet Union, I am convinced that it was Willy Brandt's "Entspannungspolitik" that had the strongest impact on the communist dictatorships. Missing a foreign enemy, the regimes had no further excuses for their home-made failures.
It is likely that we will see short-term failures of the democracy movements in Libya and Syria, and this with no regard to who will win the military confrontations. In the short run, Western policies should be focused on maintaining credibility and stability. That is: forcing the regimes to play by at least some international rules, e.g. no air strikes against civilians, but no engagement in a civil war. The mission creep in Libya must soon be ended by negotiations with the Gaddafi clan, and not develop into a forced regime change that all to easily might create a new Afghanistan. And in Syria, all should be done to prevent further violence.
Western colonial politics created the countries of the Near East as we see them today, and only double-standards of aid and cooperation treaties allowed many of the regimes to survive until today. And while the stability provided by dictators should not be disregarded, it might also have been all too comfortable in the past to ignore corruption or stay entrenched in old concepts of enemies.
Future policies should aim to firstly create real credibility, that is the West must play according to its own rules and not turn a blind eye to corrupt regimes because they serve its interests. And secondly, many small incentives should be given that lead to more cooperation and understanding with the countries of the Middle East. Such measures, e.g. student exchanges, well-managed development aid, and general cooperation will create trust. In that context, all too often small groups close to the governments stole e.g. development aid, which is known to the donors but ignored as a deal in order to gain more influence.
Big changes can only be the result of many small changes that benefit all. And these will only happen if the rule of the law is respected. The current situations in Libya and Syria are unclear and complex and it is hard to say which action Western countries could or should take. I think credibility and respect of the rules are key elements for future positive developments, and the West needs to lead by example. I think it was correct to enforce the no-fly zone in Libya, but it is time to design a clear exit strategy now. In the end, it is the Libyans who must decide about their future.
Western engagement should not aim to have one or another group win the confrontations, but to bring people back to negotiations and a political process. Only then real democratic development can take place.
Dr. Bernhard Lucke is a researcher at the Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nurenburg and has spent many years working in the Middle East.