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As William Hague prepares to visit Australia, street protests overthrow an Arab regime. Could 2011 be the middle east's 1989?

Screen shot 2011-01-15 at 06.58.46
by Paul Goodman

William Hague's getting ready for the first visit to Australia by a British Foreign Secretary since 1994.  It's deplorable that none of his Labour predecessors travelled to a country with which we're so intimately connected, and which shares much of our temper, outlook and character.  "There are many special links with Australia that already exist, but they need reviving, they need some new impetus, and I think there is great enthusiasm for that in Britain," he told the Australian in an interview published today.  But his mind's likely to be preoccupied today not so much by the trip, Afghanistan or the EU as by the convulsive news from Tunisia.

The Foreign Office has already warned against travelling there unless it's "essential" to do so.  The Daily Telegraph today carries Hague's warning to check the Foreign Office's travel advice, "respect advice or instructions given by the local security authorities and tour operators, and avoid rallies and demonstrations".  (Hague's unlikely to have said instead: "And if you see a riot, go on!  Join in!  You know you want to!)  The Daily Mail contains accounts of three thousand Britons due to be flown back from Tunisia, with some having witnessed violence and looting.

Hague also calls for "a rapid return to law and order, restraint from all sides, an orderly move towards free and fair elections and an immediate expansion of political freedoms in Tunisia".  It isn't a criticism of him to add that this is what Foreign Secretaries say when they haven't a clue what will happen next, because no-one does.  Tunisia has been ruled by Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali for 23 years.  There are many precedents for Arab leaders being overthrown by a military coup, but none for one being toppled by popular revolt after the publication of Wikileaks cables - even if the turbulence has far more to do with prices and jobs than corruption.

Some well-known Tunisian activists linked to the Muslim Brotherhood live in Britain - Mohammed Ali Harrath, Rashid Ghannouchi.  They'll doubtless hope that this is their moment.  However, the riots reportedly show no sign of being encouraged, let alone planned, by the Ikhwan, and no-one knows what elections would produce.  Many people, half-catching the flickering images on their TV screens, will devoutly hope that Britain stays out of it all - in military terms, this is right - and some will view Tunisia as a far-away country of which we know just about as much as we want to.

It will be easier to shrug and ignore the news from Africa if the turbulence is confined to one country, but harder if it spreads, like an echo of the fall of communism: there've been riots recently in Algeria, and some were reported yesterday in Jordan.  This is par for the course in much of the Middle East, but the overthrow of a autocracy by the people is rare.  In the earliest days of the French Revolution, Burke wrote of England "gazing with astonishment at a French struggle for Liberty and not knowing whether to blame or applaud".  I can't help wondering whether the event to which he applied them will turn out to be a precedent.


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