Since Christmas, we in Europe have witnessed some unprecedented events in the Middle-East, events that have unfolded at lightning speed with implications for the wider world. Tunisia had a revolution, Syria is experiencing uprising, Lebanon has just appointed a new Hezbollah President, Jordan has experienced riots over food and fuel prices and of course Egypt—historically one of the more stable countries—has now experienced a major revolution, following decades of rule by a totalitarian government. Leaders who held seats of power were uprooted by the internet/Facebook generation and as I write, Bahrain and Libya have this week joined the growing list of countries experiencing significant unrest.

As I observe these developments and their impact, or likely impact on Israel, I do wonder what comes next? Israel sits as an island of democracy in a sea of Arabic and, increasingly, Islamic fundamentalist strongholds. The Muslim Brotherhood which formed in 1928 clearly has their eyes on Egypt. So, as much as the western world has endorsed the possibility of change for the better, Egypt in 2011 may end up looking like Iran in 1979. Should the Muslim Brotherhood gain power in Egypt, I am sure they will seek to tear up the peace accord that exists with Israel. When one considers the level of Islamic anti-American/Western feeling, and that half Israel’s natural gas comes from Egypt, the potential fallout of this revolution could be serious.

What lessons for the ADR professional can be derived from such historic events, live as they are? First, examine history. Winston Churchill once said the more we look back, the further we can see forward. What happened, who said what, who did what? In our work it is essential to explore and investigate the history of the case in order to understand what lies behind any given dispute. Sometimes the reasons go back a long way, as with the Egyptians, who endured 30 years of a totalitarian police state under a military leader. Did the Egyptian leadership see this revolution coming? Do leaders in business see disputes coming? Perhaps, like former President Mubarrak, such business leaders are so self assured they never give the idea any merit? In Egypt, as in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Libya and Jordan, there are interests and needs that have gone unmet for generations. In business, people may endure unmet needs or interests for a while, but eventually there will be a reaction as illustrated in the Middle-East. These political uprisings and revolutions simply reflect the microcosm of strikes and industrial actions within the workplace. Secondly, assume nothing. An old saying I often use is that assumption makes an “ass” out of you and me. In military parlance it is framed in stronger terms: that assumption is the mother of all “****ups.” Assuming anything, can place the ADR professional in a vulnerable position, as you never know what may come next. My advice: research, explore and then explore again.

Today as I watch the events unfolding, I wonder what will come next? Science teaches us that nature cannot accommodate a vacuum; something has to fill it. Likewise, in Egypt, something will fill the political power vacuum that exists right now. However, the assumption that a revolution which has overthrown a thirty year old totalitarian regime may lead to better times, may be a false hope. There is a huge power struggle in the whole region with the Islamic Brotherhood having set their eyes on Egypt. This new potential leadership could, if it gains control, create even greater instability in the region. Mubarrak may have been a dogmatic leader, but sometimes the devil you know is better than the one you don’t!

In business, change for change’s sake is not always advisable unless there is a sound business case for doing so. And when change comes, it is important to test the options before setting off on a new course. I was involved with a client who was keen to overthrow old ways and introduce new practices, as with the Egyptian people. Great in theory, but when tested as to how the new business would look, he had clearly not thought it through in detail. His staff were edgy, frustrated and tensions were simmering, so I had to counsel caution and wisdom. Likewise, I would also counsel caution and wisdom to those directly, or indirectly, influencing events in Egypt and the entire Middle-East. Remember, assumption has proven to be the mother of many a serious historical misjudgement, and what you think you see - may not be so!

by Howard Stern

Operating primarily in the UK and Europe, Howard works exclusively in conflict and dispute resolution. His work follows a 25 year career in project management, training and development. Howard is a member of the British Civil Mediation Council, accredited by the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution as a mediator, and affiliated with various NGOs. His love of travel and the great outdoors has taken him to many places, sometimes in pursuit of his wider professional interests in international politics, and to explore the global pressures facing society as it copes with rapid population growth.