Jack Straw – 2006 Davos Speech on the Middle East

The speech made by Jack Straw, the then Foreign Secretary, on 28 January 2006.

In time to come historians will say of the last five years of the Middle East not that the sands had shifted but that the earth had moved: something profound and sustainable – though not irreversible – happened over that period: the number of potential nuclear weapon states in the wider Middle East reduced from four to two; there was the removal of a dictator who not only terrorised his own people but actively supported terrorism elsewhere in the region and sought wider regional domination; and there was the beginnings of democratic change in many – but by no means all – Middle Eastern states.

Against these more positive developments there is the fact that Iran, its likely nuclear weapons ambitions, and its sickening, horrific hostility to Israel and to Jewish people have made it a much bigger problem than five years ago. There is the fragility of governance and the intensity of terrorism within Iraq. And this new power but greater potential instability from the increase in the oil price. But Iran, Iraq and the oil price are being debated thoroughly in other sessions.

So let me in this session concentrate on one of the biggest tests of all in the Middle East, the transfer of power from elite to street – otherwise known as democracy. All the countries represented here and which are now democracies have followed different routes and time-scales in arriving at that state of grace. In countries like Iraq, the timescale is likely to be remarkably short. Many countries in the European Union have only been democracies for a decade or so: and in some, indeed many, it took violent convulsions to kick start the process. For the UK the process has been more gradual over centuries and more benign. But whatever the route, whatever the timescale, the argument was always the same: could the mob, the mass, the hoi polloi, ‘the street’ be trusted. What if, as the old communists used to say, the proletariat showed a false consciousness or simply came up with the wrong answer? Let’s be clear – I do not take that view. I’ve lived by democratic elections all my life.

Indeed, it’s when you get the so-called wrong answer that the faith of the elite and the powerful in a democracy can really be tested. That faith is being tested here and now in the occupied territories following Hamas’s unexpected victory in Wednesday’s PLC election.

Already there are those saying within the Palestinian Authority, in Israel and beyond: ‘We should never have listened to the US, the UK, the quartet, the European Union. The Palestinians have given the wrong answer: how much better if elections had simply been stalled yet again, having been stalled for many years in the past.’

But I do not agree. Condoleeza Rice was correct last year when she said that the US had traditionally pursued security over democracy, but had got neither – and she is still right. Let’s look at the counterfactuals. Yes, there is a problem now in the Occupied Territories; it’s a problem for Hamas. But the ‘wrong answer’ approach leads straight back to Saddam Hussein; or as a western backed coup d’etat to overturn the results of an election, military rule and decades of insurgency and bloodshed. And the ‘wrong answer’ approach above all leads to a loss of moral leadership by the West as critics would fairly say that our subscription to democracy is only skin deep.

Instead, what we have to do from this result is ensure that it provides a wider lesson in democracy. Democracy is – yes –about universal suffrage, free and fair elections and the respecting of results; but much more too. There are fundamental principles on which democracies absolutely depend: the first of these is that democracy and violence are incompatible; the ballot and the bullet cannot be used interchangeably – democracy by terrorism is no democracy at all, ever. The second principle is that democracy involves a bond of trust between electors and the elected – that the latter will deliver by peaceful, non-violent means. The third, in the specific context of the Middle East, is that Israel, a democracy itself, has a right to exist, and that no governing authority inside the occupied territories can deliver without dealing with Israel. I just add this parenthetically about Hamas’s victory. Many have been surprised by the result. But I suspect none more so than the Hamas leadership itself. They wanted to be the opposition – enjoy negative power and no responsibility. Now the responsibilities they have are much greater than their power – a truth for all leaders of all democracies. And any of these leaders have to be on notice to meet those responsibilities.

As to the rest of the Middle East, within a complex reality, and with Iran moving backwards we can see an overall shift in the direction of reform and democratic institutions. In Lebanon a popular political movement was followed by that country’s first credible national elections since the civil war in May and June of last year. In Iraq, we had two sets of elections and a referendum which despite the threat of terrorism attracted higher levels of voter participation than are seen in much better established democracies. Algeria held a referendum in September on a charter for peace and reconciliation. Opinions on the charter remain divided but the participation of the Algerian people in that decision was broadly welcomed. Morocco has just published an extensive report on past human rights abuses. And Kuwait has approved suffrage for women. And while I don’t wish to underplay the problems and violence of the Presidential and Parliamentary elections last year in Egypt, it is true that they still remain the most representative in that country’s history.

I said at the beginning that this shift of power from elite to street was profound and sustainable but not necessarily irreversible. Whether it can become thus, whether we will see what the United Nations Arab Development Report called “ a new renaissance” now depends, in my judgement, on the collection of decisions which the international community, the region and above all Hamas make.