The Arab Spring matures into a political reality

The optimism of the Arab Spring is giving way to a measure of political reality. But William Hague was correct; these events are "the most important development of the early 20th century." Changs is no longer optional.

The British foreign secretary, William Hague, has called on world leaders to support Arab democratic activists and warned Libya and Syria that resisting change was doomed to fail.

"The eruption of democracy movements across the Middle East and North Africa is, even in its early stages, the most important development of the early 21st century," Mr Hague said on Wednesday. The long-term effect, in his view, could be greater than those of September 11 or the financial crisis.

It is a striking assessment of this year's events. The revolutionary impulses that started in Tunisia and spread to Egypt are still growing across the region. Each country has its own set of circumstances, but the young people driving these revolutions share the same dreams and grievances, they chant the same slogans on the streets, and they all want to live in a region where they have the opportunity to realise their own aspirations.

The optimism that so many felt after regimes in Tunisia and Egypt fell is now tempered with all of the complexities of political reality. What could be called the "Qaddafi solution" - the bloody suppression of protesters by any means available - seemed to check the progress of protests, and not only in his own country. Syria has shown worrying signs of devolving into its own armed conflict; in Iran, Yemen and Bahrain, protesters have been met with violence in the streets.

Each of these countries has its own balance to strike, and its own path to reform. But a universal lesson is that violence is not a solution. The optimism of the period that has become known as the Arab Spring may be coming to an end, but the same demands for reform remain across the region. The only solutions are political; even the worst violence in Libya and Syria will not frighten people into blind obedience.

Egypt may be a bellwether for the region. As the most populous Arab country, it will have influence beyond its borders as September elections and a new political order approach. This transition will be a model if it is inclusive, peaceful and unifying - or if it is not.

Many have been preoccupied with the Muslim Brotherhood's role in Egypt's elections, but it is not religious parties themselves that we need fear. It is extremism, which gains energy under repressive regimes.

Change is no longer a choice, it is a necessity. Some regimes may fall, others may have to radically reform; people from all walks of life will have to work together to forge their own political orders.