Can the West be trusted to support democracy in the Middle East and North Africa?

What can Western powers  do to aid genuine democracy in the Middle East and North Africa and can they be trusted, given the way that authoritarian regimes have been propped up in pursuit of ‘stability’ in the past?

These were two themes that emerged from April’s First Wednesday discussion last night, which focused on the way that the West was being forced to adapt its foreign policy by events in the Middle East and North Africa.

In a discussion that was very much lead by questions from the floor, one audience member commented that countries in the Middle East have in the past been viewed as pariah states or stooges by the West. Now that people movements are seeking "a plain, simple democracy" can they trust that the West genuinely wants the same?

Jane Kinninmont, senior research fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, said Tunisa and Eypt are "potentially a great opportunity" for the West to offer genuine support to real democratic transitions through political support, training, legal advice, help finding assets and economic support including debt relief:

There seems in Egypt to be particular demand for investment and for guarantees, under writing of investments that will create jobs. Jobs are going to be absolutely key to Egypt’s success.

I do very much hope that Western policy makers do take that opportunity and don’t decide that they fear the Muslim Brotherhood so much that they would prefer another disguised military government.

Barak Seener, research fellow, Middle East Studies at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies argued against democratisation and instead for liberalisation.

Referring to a Wall Street Journal interview with Bernard Lewis, in which the leading scholar argued against the US pushing for quick Western-style elections, Barak Seener said: 
Classical Islam has a system of consultations, in Arabic there is no word for democracy, they have justice, they have consultations. Why should we impose a Western style of democracy on the Middle East. There doesn’t need to be a clash of civilisations if consultations are working in sync with Western democracies.
But his suggestion that the West should be funding opposition groups was challenged by audience members, many of whom were from Libya as well as Egypt, Tunisia and Syria and Iran. 
As as soon as the West is involved in funding opposition groups there is mistrust about motives, it was argued.

The panel, including Libyan writer and historian Dr Faraj Najem, largely supported intervention in Libya:

We have had a regime which for the last 42 years has not liked the word democracy and has denied its people personal freedom and also development and has pillaged the country’s riches.

A regime which is not just lethal to its own people – we saw what happened in Locherbie, the French airplane over Niger and also in Chad, causing too many problems to its neighbours, Tunisia, the Egyptians and the Saudis. A regime that even sponsored a coup in Fiji.

So it’s a regime which is very dangerous and what’s particularly dangerous is that it’s not  just the father, it’s the seven sons who are taking over and a daughter who is also very dangerous.

But should we expect more interventions in the new world order that is emerging? What of countries like Syria, Bahrain and Yemen?

Dr Noel Brehony CMG, research associate at the London Middle East Institute at SOAS and author of a recent book on Yemen said that it was unlikely that a precedent for intervention had been set:

It’s very important to remember that we are talking about 19 or 20 different countries that are all different and the pace of what’s happening in each country and their trajectories will be different. I think in Saudi Arabia, for example, it will be very slow.

There was a consensus on Libya, it was a very clear situation. I don’t know whether we will see the same in Yemen, where you’ve got the opposition parties, you’ve got the people on the streets who are all united in wanting to remove  [Ali Abdullah] Saleh but arevery divided among themselves. Anything there would be very messy indeed. 

Syria is a very strong regime and it will have to react in some way to what’s going to happen but I hope that we can do that through diplomatic and other pressure. They are all learning, these regimes from each other. That’s why we are seeing economic concessions being made, these promises of political change.

For further discussion on whether opposition movements in Yemen and Bahrain are justified in feeling betrayed by the international community for failing to do anything to reign in regimes there, the importance of Saudi Arabia to the West, morals v self interest and a great deal more, listen to the podcast here or download from itunes.