So the Americans have caught up with Osama bin Laden. No one will grieve too much about that, even if most of the world will not have the public celebrations that started across the US.
It is unlikely that the death of bin Laden will do much in itself to hamper terrorists; it is unclear how deeply involved he has been in planning the various attacks attributed to al-Qaeda. However, while the world’s media attention shifts to his fate, the real danger is that events in Libya, Yemen and now Syria may be ignored, even if only for a while.
The popular calls for a democratic transformation in these Arab nations have met with violent suppression; one has the feeling that the degree of repression would have been all the greater if the eyes of the world were not on events there.
In fact, I seem to remember that when the troubles in Syria began – at a much lower intensity – Col. Ghaddafi to the opportunity afforded him by the media shift of attention to the fledgling Syrian protests to launch an attack on his opponents.
It would be sad if the same thing were to happen again. These “revolutions” are long overdue: the Arab peoples have a long and proud history, and share much of their cultural heritage with Europe (and therefore also with the US and so many other countries around the world).
This means that there is no propensity for the Arabs to revert to despotism, any more than there is that propensity for any average European country. What these revolutions are about (I know, I am going t repeat myself here) is the reclaiming of the public sphere, of the possibility of civil society, political debate and thus influence on the social and political (and also – why not? – economic) direction of their countries. These are things that many of us take for granted.
What shape the new Arab democracies will take is not for us to decide. It is up to us, however, to give all the support we can. At its most basic, this is a simple matter: it does not involve much other than attention. But this is essential.
The rest – involving greater cost and risk, admittedly, is predicated upon this bare essential. Whether it be the use of the military to provide physical protection as in Libya, or the use of diplomatic and economic effort to pressure recalcitrant regimes, or even the care for refugees displaced by the troubles and the provision of resources to interim authorities, any further measures depend totally upon this essential fact of attention.
So this is an appeal: however good having Osama bin Laden out of the way may feel, please please please do not let that distract you from the really important things happening now. And that means the reclamation of public space and debate by Arabs across the Middle East.
Specifically, this means support the fledgling democratic movements in Tunisia and Egypt; keep watching developments in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. The West has let the Middle East down too often in the recent past to afford to do so again!