What would Churchill make of the Middle East?

As I travelled around I was following closely the unfolding events in the Middle East – as were my staff at the Embassy.   We are at a historic moment of change in a region which matters hugely to the world.  In Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain there is clear popular support for change. In Libya too, people are bravely seeking greater rights, aspiring to more economic development and demanding more open political systems. In many parts of the Arab world, hopes and aspirations which have been smothered for decades are stirring.

The underlying causes of citizens’ grievances are well known: lack of economic opportunity, youthful populations who feel they struggle to make their voices heard, a sense of inequality and lack of justice.  Events have shown that governments need to respond to these legitimate aspirations with reform not repression, if they are to enhance their long-term stability and prosperity.  There are many ways to meet these aspirations. There is no single formula for success, no single model of government in a region with distinct cultures and differing political systems. And reform must be home-grown; it cannot be imposed by outsiders.   Leadership must come from within countries.

But here’s where I sense a strong continuity with Churchill’s speech at Fulton: it is that the best guiding principle to policy-making in an era of profound and rapid change is to stay true to the values which we ourselves hold dear.  That means insisting on the right to peaceful protest, on freedom of speech including on the Internet, on freedom of assembly and the rule of law.  These are not just our values, but the entitlement of people everywhere.  They are the building blocks of plural, open societies.

“We must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man…  The people of any country have the right, by free unfettered elections, with secret ballot, to choose or change the character of any government under which they dwell. … Here are the title deeds of freedom which should lie in every …home.  Let us preach what we practice – let us practice what we preach.”  As I pointed out in Fulton this weekend, those lines come not from a leading article on the Middle East in today’s newspapers, but from Churchill’s speech 65 years ago. They well stand the test of time.

Nigel Sheinwald is the British Ambassador.

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