Opinion | Patience is the order of the day in the Middle East

What criteria should we use to judge the developments in the Middle East? The question is made relevant by the rapid changes sweeping through Libya, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia and other countries in the region. Can we demand, let alone expect, that these countries – in the midst of violent and dramatic social upheaval, and after years of repression by brutal dictators – can suddenly meet Danish standards for law, justice, human rights, liberty and well-functioning democracy?

The answer is a resounding “no”. Would we like that to be the case? Yes, of course. That’s what the whole thing is about. But right now? It’d be incredibly naive to think it could happen. If we hold them up to our standards, we’re bound to be disappointed, and I feel it would also be deeply unfair to the people of these countries.


What we can do – and what we are doing – is to do our best to encourage developments to move in the right direction, support those who want to make a positive contribution, strengthen civil society, and provide expertise in areas like the rule of law, human rights and gender equality. We also need to criticise abuse, torture, and ethnic and religious persecution, and encourage the international community to take collective measures to address these problems. We also need to be realistic and patient. This is going to take time.


Even just a few months ago, no-one could have expected what is happening right now. But, before we get on our high horse about the uprising and its fallout in Libya, may I gently point out that we in Europe underwent a dramatic process of retribution after the Second World War. In Denmark, we retroactively implemented capital punishment, and many men and women, guilty or otherwise, were publicly humiliated. Some even lost their lives after the conflict officially ended. And this is precisely the point: Denmark in 1945 was already an established democracy. The occupation lasted five years. In Libya, a country without any democratic traditions to begin with, they lived under a dictator for 42 years. Those Libyans who have experienced anything even closely resembling an election are all at least 60. Seen in that light, I’m not surprised by the violence we’ve seen after Gaddafi’s fall. Anything else would have been surprising. It’s my impression that despite the significant problems the country faces, the pace of change has been steadier than could have been hoped for just six months ago.


Elsewhere in the Middle East, the killings continue in Syria. The Syrian government’s violence against its own people is utterly unacceptable. I understand people’s rationale that if we were willing to intervene in Libya, we should also do so in Syria. The situation in Syria though is a different one, and that limits our room to manoeuvre. Let me make it clear though: the international community is doing what it can to help the Syrians. We have imposed broad sanctions, the Arab League has pushed for a political solution, and the members of the Friends of Syria group are standing together to put pressure on the government.


Having foreign militaries get involved, though, is not an option for a number of reasons: the opposition in Syria is fractious and its people are more diverse than in Libya. Also influencing the decision is the inability of the Security Council to come to an agreement. Two permanent members – China, and, to an even larger extent, Russia – have chosen not to play a constructive role in helping to pressure the Syrian government. What also needs to be considered is that Syria is a microcosm of the Middle East with all its contradictions, conflicts, intrigues and conspiracy theories. I share the scepticism of American and European foreign ministers that military intervention is a viable solution, given the likelihood that it could drag out into a protracted civil war that would destabilise the entire region. 


That’s why I believe Denmark, the EU and the majority of the world’s countries are doing the right thing. We continue to tighten the screws, ratchet up the political pressure and impose stricter sanctions. In recent weeks, we’ve seen the vice-oil minister and others defect from the Syrian government. We’re not seeing as many as we did in Libya, but they show that the Assad regime faces rising dissatisfaction with its violent reaction. This is something we shouldn’t cry over. Syria, though, will continue to be beset by a myriad of complicated problems long after Assad is gone. Once again, patience is the order of the day.


There is a Danish adage that says you know what you have, you don’t know what you get. We shouldn’t let that apply in this situation, because what the Libyans and the Syrians had was horrid. Now, at least, they have the hope of a better life. And that is what they are fighting for.


The author is the foreign minister.