A great many homes and cafes in Central London have been buzzing with political excitement this spring, but this buzz has owed less to a clamour for debate about the merits of reform to our own electoral system than to the close interest London's Arab diasporas have taken in the event of the ‘Arab spring'. It is not only the internet and Twitter which have globalised even the smallest stirrings of protests in universities, refugee camps and city squares across the Middle East- it is also this extended community of exiles, drinking coffee in the shisha cafes on the Edgware Road.
The extraordinary courage that has been demonstrated daily in towns and cities across North Africa and the Middle East since the start of the year gives the emphatic lie to those who see those regions in monolithic terms. All too frequently, we have noticed and reported on only the brutal despotism of so many of the governments concerned, or the passionate demonstration of anti-Western sentiment (particularly in the context of Western foreign policy), when in fact the citizens of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere have the same desires for freedom, peace and justice as we do in Europe and in the US. And there are many thousands of men and women, often now British citizens of long-standing, who were originally refugees from the vicious regimes now toppled or under pressure, who are either celebrating, engaging in the new political environment emerging in countries like Egypt, or anxiously surveying the situation in Libya where they may have friends and family.
The potential transformation of the region, faltering and incomplete though it is currently is, has massive implications for the world. We were right to intervene to prevent a massacre of the Libyans in Benghazi, as the experience of inaction in the Balkans wars during the 1990s should have taught us, but whilst slaughter has been averted, we are now in something of a stalemate. That is not a sustainable position in the long run. The US would be right to inject investment in the economies of those countries emerging from the shadows, but we know that while ‘soft power' has advantages that military power does not, even this form of involvement is not risk free. It seems as though one of the consequences of the protest movements across the Arab world has been steps towards greater unity between Fatah and Hamas- an essential preliminary if the Palestinians are to make their presence felt in any effort to re-energise the Middle East peace process, but such unity (coupled with uncertainty over what happens next in Egypt and elsewhere) is also greatly increasing Israeli fears about what changes will mean for their security as a nation. Israel has the right to security behind secure borders. Yet the rights of the Palestinian people to a viable state of their own must be recognised. and in that context, last week's killing by Israeli forces of 13 demonstrators at the Qalandiya crossing, together with the continuation of settlement building, are deeply disturbing.
It is much too early to do more than hope that the promises of the Arab spring will be realised - we certainly can't yet count on sustained progress in every country where the young have made such sacrifices for freedom - but that hope mustn't be just empty sentiment. For far too long, the West gave every impression of preferring the stability of the status quo in over the uncertainty of democracy across large swathes of the Middle East, Asia and Africa, but such security was always likely to be an illusion. So it has proved. Now is an opportunity to respond with more imagination and humility than we have managed in the past.