Tunisia – the Jasmine Revolution. Egypt – the ? Revolution. The Arab world has been shaken to its core. Popular unrest has exploded and the results are dramatic. Egypt –who would have thought it? Even Israel’s famed intelligence service was taken by surprise, and that is quite an achievement. Hard line, repressive regimes have crumbled after years of domination. One night Mubarak was staying put: the next day he had left Cairo for the seaside. At the time of writing, nobody really knows what the future holds for Egypt. For the time being the situation seems to have reached a stalemate, although the army, as it has always done, wields great influence. Will there be a secular democracy to replace the oppressive government of the past? What role will the powerful Muslim Brotherhood play, and what will be their outlook if they come to share power?
It’s not only Israel that has cause for anxious thoughts. Across the Middle East other authoritarian regimes should tremble. Who could be next? Yemen, Jordan or someone else entirely? Some rulers, not known for their interest in democracy, are scrambling to make concessions in the hope that revolution, violent or more peaceful, may be averted and their hold on power may continue. Whether or not it will be a case of too little, too late, remains to be seen. Instability can spread surprisingly rapidly, not least because of the speed with which news can travel and destabilisers can communicate with each other in a digital age. The case of Eastern Europe in 1989 has demonstrated how the momentum for change can build to an unstoppable point – and then the dominoes being to tumble.
‘Democracy’, of course, is a marvellous word. Everybody agrees (well, lots of people agree) it is a ‘good thing’ – billions of US Dollars have been poured into trying to export the American version to a region that has not had much exposure to democracy, and often was quite content to work through clan and family structures. It has to be remembered, however, that the Iranian Revolution was carried out in the name of democracy, and the results in present-day Iran are rather less than democratic, by most definitions of that word. It’s a little ironic that that revolution removed the repressive regime of the Shah, who had been put in power by the US as a replacement for a democratically elected leader whose views were not to the liking of the US. Curiouser and curiouser.
For Christians looking in from the outside, it is an immensely complex situation and few of us have even a fraction of the knowledge that would enable us to give a sensible opinion. In some circles the only test that will be applied to any outcome is ‘Is it good for Israel?’ Even deciding that may be far from easy. Those who believe that the purposes of God in the Middle East are rather wider than the interests of one nation probably have many more questions than answers.
What we do have, however, is direct access to the God who governs the affairs of all nations, including Egypt, Israel and all the others in the region. We may not be able to read the mind of the Almighty as he unfolds his purposes, but we can pray for peace and justice to prevail, and above all we can pray for the cause of the gospel in these countries. We have brothers and sisters in most of them: brothers and sisters who may well be perplexed, anxious, fearful, facing an unknown future which could bring very testing times. The exodus of Christians from Iraq since the invasion designed to bring democracy shows what can happen. We must pray that our spiritual kin will be kept in safety and will have grace and wisdom to know how to speak and act in the midst of turmoil. We might well also pray that those from western governments who have a role to play (and some may well be Christian) will help and not hinder the transition to greater freedom.