The Arab Spring - reform will be the work of generations

Foreign Secretary William Hague speaking at the 2012 Manama Dialogue in Bahrain.


Foreign Secretary William Hague


Manama Dialogue



I thank IISS and the Government of Bahrain for hosting this Manama Dialogue the fourth I have attended and it is a particular pleasure to speak alongside my friend the Foreign Minister of Jordan Nasser Judeh.

The influence of sectarian politics in regional security in the Middle East is a vast and complex subject. It requires a deep understanding of the culture, demography, politics and history of the region, as well as the connections between them.

So I approach the subject with humility, as someone who is not a citizen of the region, and I am here to learn as well as to share the perspective of the United Kingdom.

But I am also fundamentally optimistic about human nature and therefore about the future of the Middle East, a region where my country has many deep and mutually beneficial relationships.

Though it is hard to imagine all tensions in the region being eliminated, there is is nothing inevitable about sectarian conflict in the Middle East.

I reject the idea that democracy cannot take root in Arab nations, or that there is an unbridgeable divide between Sunni and Shia, Catholic and Protestant or Jew and Muslim.

People of different religions, sects and ethnicities can live together harmoniously within a nation and have often done so throughout history in this region, and those nations can themselves peacefully coexist with others with different ethnic and religious compositions.

The Middle East is not the only region to have experienced sectarian tensions. Inter-faith tension and conflict has blighted Europe in the past, and it continues in parts of Asia and Africa today.

Indeed in my country we endured decades of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, which was overcome through a peace agreement that has constantly to be nurtured and upheld.

In my remarks today I will offer four observations about the role of sectarian politics in the Middle East, on which I will welcome your questions and comments.

My first observation is that we should not make the mistake of viewing the Arab Spring through a sectarian lens.

The defining voices of the so-called Arab Spring movements have not been religious or sectarian in nature.

Instead, from Tunis to Cairo and Damascus we have heard the voices of people from all walks of life calling for dignity, for economic opportunity, for an end to corruption, for freedom of expression and for participation in political life.

These are legitimate and indeed universal aspirations that transcend nationality, gender or religion.

I am not starry-eyed about the difficulties of fulfilling these aspirations in countries that have experienced sudden political transitions like Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya. Reform cannot be achieved overnight.

Their governments face an immense task to meet the expectations of their people. Some of them are grappling with severe security challenges. They are all under intense pressure to generate rapid economic benefits for their citizens.

Added to this, there are undoubtedly some extremist groups that seek to stir up violence through the exploitation of sectarian and ethnic differences - in the way that we have seen in Lebanon and Iraq over many years - and who may seek to exploit political vulnerabilities in countries in transition.

I am also conscious of the concerns felt by many citizens in the region about the rise of parties rooted in particular interpretations of Islam, and above all the impact on womens rights.

But democracy is a process, not an event. The test of any government, including new governments in North Africa and the Middle East, is whether they ensure that the rights of citizenship belong to those who do not share their religious or political views; whether they extend the protection of law to all minorities and ensure a full role for women in society; and whether they respect the democratic process by not clinging to power if they lose the consent of their people. If they do these things, the pride and prosperity they have fought for in their countries will truly be theirs. Political change will endure if it comes from an inclusive process which allows everyone to have their voice heard. I urge all parties in Egypt to work through their Constitutional debate peacefully and inclusively, allowing enough time and space to debate these fundamentally important issues.

Those of us outside the region have a responsibility to respect the choices people make at the ballot box. We should not pick sides or choose winners, but stand up for the right of people to choose their futures and enjoy a full stake in their society. And we should not lose faith in the people of the region, understanding that such change will continue to throw up crises and challenges and that it will be the work of generations.

My second observation is that we should not view sectarian politics as the defining issue affecting the security of the region.

Religious belief is only one aspect of identity, and it co-exists with other affinities and loyalties we feel as individuals: to our family, to our community, to our nation, and to humanity as a whole.

In the same way, sectarian politics are only one aspect of a complicated regional security picture in the Middle East.

When we look at the other crucial factors affecting stability, such as inter-state rivalry, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the threat of terrorism or nuclear proliferation, it is clear that sectarian politics are not necessarily the determining factor in the security of the region. Nor are they the over-riding factor in the creation of alliances between Iran and Hamas or Iran and the Assad regime, for instance, where self-interest overrides sectarian issues.

We have to address each of these conflicts and dangers in their own right.

We have, for example, to achieve a return to negotiations on a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before time runs out. That is why we in the UK are urging the United States to lead a new initiative to restart negotiations urgently, backed by a more active role for European nations. If progress is not made soon, the two state solution could be made impossible by changes on the ground including illegal settlement-building.

We also have to create the conditions for a return to negotiations over Irans nuclear programme, through a credible diplomatic offer to Iran and the prospect of increasing sanctions and isolation if talks do not take place and Iran does not take concrete steps to address the concerns of the international community. This is the only way to avert the risk of a military confrontation in the region, which could have calamitous consequences.

If we do not do succeed in these objectives then 2013 could be a dark year in the Middle East, with a perfect storm of crises converging, including a worsening crisis in Syria.

This leads to my third observation, which is that all countries in the region have a common interest in defusing sectarian tensions, and resisting any temptation to inflame them.

The dangers of stoking such tensions are all too apparent in Syria.

Twenty years ago on European soil we saw the appalling consequences of ethnic war, when what started as external aggression in Bosnia mutated into internal ethnic conflict, leading to death and displacement on a truly horrific scale.

In Syria today with each week that passes the wounds inflicted on its society are deeper, the harder it will be to unite different communities, and the greater the risk is of the disintegration of the country.

That is why a political transition is desperately needed, based on the Geneva principles.

This would be a realistic and pragmatic basis for ending the crisis. To be successful it will require Syrian opposition groups, the National Coalition, to reassure all religious and ethnic communities that their rights will be respected, and that they have nothing to fear from a political transition.

But it will also need the full engagement of the UN Security Council. I urge Russia and China to recognise that President Assad cannot conceivably cling to power or recover legitimacy in the eyes of the country; and therefore to work with us and with Special Envoy Brahimi to achieve a political end to the violence.

The alternative of drawn-out military conflict would lead to the loss of many more lives. It could lead to a power-vacuum in Syria and the collapse of the country, and it would allow new terrorist groups to emerge in the heart of the Middle East. We need peace-making now to avert such consequences in Syria.

In this context I pay tribute to Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon who are bearing the brunt of the appalling refugee crisis, and call on all nations to give generously to UN relief efforts.

My fourth and final observation is that the only way to defuse and overcome sectarian tensions is by peaceful political means.

It requires, I would argue, the development of more open societies and economies that reconcile the rights of all with national traditions; with inclusive political systems that allow all groups to participate; and where all communities can be confident that they will have equal access to rights, justice, education, and economic opportunity regardless of their ethnicity or religion.

This suggests a move away from political structures that favour the rule of one sect over another, and instead are based on a vision of citizenship that makes sect irrelevant and politics based on policy, not identity.

We believe that creating the building blocks of open societies the rule of law, a flourishing civil society and an independent judiciary and press is the surest way for governments to enjoy legitimacy and consent and for their countries to prosper.

But we respect the right of each nation in the region to find its own way, in accordance with the grain of their society and their traditions. Arab nations are sovereign countries and it is not for the UK or any other country to prescribe ways of changing. There is no one model for in a region with distinct cultures and differing political systems. And it is utterly appropriate that reform must be home-grown, and for leadership to come from within countries in the region themselves.

We welcome the fact that many countries have embarked on peaceful reform programmes, and encourage them to continue.

Entrenching more open societies and economies in the Middle East offers the hope for the greatest expansion of human freedom since the end of the Cold War.

The UK will be a friend and partner to all those engaged in such efforts. We will support those countries reborn through revolution, and respect those changing through evolution.

If the path of peaceful change can be taken and we can combine this with resolute action to resolve crises and end bloodshed, there is every hope of avoiding sectarian politics that pit communities against one another, and undermine the potential of this great region.