British Foreign Secretary William Hague addresses the media during a press conference at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in central London.  (Getty photo)

Al Arabiya London

British Foreign Secretary William Hague has warned that “convulsions” may lie ahead as the Arab Spring unfolds, and said the process of change now taking place could take an entire generation to complete.

In an interview with the Times of London, six months into the revolutions shaking the Arab world, Mr. Hague said the problems ahead include sectarian strife, economic weakness and counter-revolutions.

There will be “a lot of problems and even convulsions” to come, he said.

He expressed particular concern over a power struggle in Egypt. “The next few months could be quite turbulent and difficult in Egypt,” he said.

But he coupled these observations with a note of optimism. Arab people, he said, will not tolerate a return to authoritarian rule when they have caught sight of an alternative.

He said President Bashar Al Assad of Syria, who has not been able to put down protests even after more than 1,400 civilians have been killed, should not count on being in power in six months.

The newspaper splashed its interview with the foreign secretary across its front page.

He said his warnings should not be taken to mean that the democracy movement has stalled.

“What has started this year will take a generation to work through,” he said. “We mustn’t expect each country to be neatly done in six months. It’s not a computer game that comes to an end when you get bored. It’s not a TV program that finishes at 10 p.m. We are going to be working at this for the rest of our lives.”

These remarks appeared directed at a British public that has grown increasingly restive over the slow progress of the NATO bombing campaign in Libya and Britain’s role in it.

Earlier this week, Britain joined France in suggesting that Col. Muammar Qaddafi could stay in power in Libya if he steps down as leader and stays out of politics. At the time, Libyan rebel leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil agreed but he now says internal exile for the colonel is not valid.

Mr. Hague defended the British decision, saying it was not for Western governments to dictate terms to the Libyan people.

The current focus on revolutionary change in the Middle East, he said, should not deflect attention from the “even more urgent” need to find a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians and from the situation in Iran.

Of Iran’s nuclear ambitions and human rights record, he said: “The world must not lose sight of this looming problem.”

Returning to Egypt, he said the Arab world’s largest country was “perhaps the single most important piece of the jigsaw in the whole Arab Spring.”

Predicting “a good deal of further turbulence” there, he said there was less danger of Egypt falling back into authoritarian rule than of a new government failing to cope with deep-seated problems.

Egypt has a high level of unemployment and a rising youth population, and Mr. Hague said it was vital for European governments to provide favorable trade deals and closer economic ties.

He said Saudi leaders understand they must respond to the next generation of educated women.

“There is recognition all across the Arab world that the way it has been internally in the last 40 to 50 years is not going to last,” he said.

People taking part in the revolutions, he said, “are not fanatics or fundamentalists. They want what we want. They do demonstrate that the desire for human rights among human beings is universal.”

(Ray Moseley is a London-based former chief European correspondent of the Chicago Tribune and has worked extensively in the Middle East. He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .)

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