How the West was caught out by the Arab Spring

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The Year of Revolution: In the first of a series of articles on the Middle East's tempestuous year, Donald Macintyre explains how decades of diplomatic strategy was undone by the popular risings

To understand the momentousness of 2011, it's worth remembering that this time last year no one knew that, within weeks, revolution would sweep across North Africa, including the most populous and important country in the Arab world. True, the uprising had already started in Tunisia. But it was impossible to predict that by the end of the year we would have seen the ignominious flight of one tyrant, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, that a second, Hosni Mubarak, would have been imprisoned and on trial, that a third, Muammar Gaddafi, would have been extra-judicially executed, that a fourth, Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh, would have been forced to announce his own departure, and a fifth, Bashar al-Assad, would still be trying to escape his nemesis by sacrificing the lives of thousands of his fellow citizens in a gruesome but increasingly precarious exercise of power.

It goes without saying that the most dynamic impact of these seismic convulsions has been on the Arab world itself. But because the Western powers had, to a greater or lesser extent, regarded the first four as their friends, and had at least, for all his dubious alliances, co-existed, in the coldest of peaces, with President Assad, these outcomes would also require a re-think, at once hasty and profound, of their approach to the region.

In 2005 the then US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, made a speech in Cairo lamenting that for too long the West had sacrificed the need for reform in the Arab world to what it saw as the greater imperative of "stability". Now, forces in which the West had played no part were confronting it with their stark failure to act on her memorable, but as it turned out, hollow advice.

That was certainly one reason why Western governments – including, notably, the US – initially seemed so slow to grasp the enormity of the changes taking place. Well into February, a prominent European diplomat – a man justly respected for his knowledge of Egypt – told me in his office with all the certainty he could muster that Mubarak would not step down any time soon.

The failure is easy to ridicule but I can remember around the same time watching a journalists' march down a central Cairo street in protest at the fatal shooting of a colleague by a police sniper and thinking what an appalling risk they were taking – that at any moment Mubarak's thugs might pounce as they had bloodily done on Tahrir Square five days earlier – and that unlike at least some of those in the square, the journalists had no rocks with which to defend themselves. Yet four days later Mubarak had gone.

Given their links with the regimes in question, both Britain and France redeemed themselves somewhat by military intervention to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya. Britain was helped in this, of course, by having a government which less than a year earlier had replaced the Labour one that, reversing years of ostracism, had forged an alliance with Gaddafi's Libya. On one level that had been easy to defend – a reasonable, and for British commercial interests incidentally lucrative – trade-off of international rehabilitation for an end to Libya's nascent WMD programme and support for global terrorism. The problem was that it came with too great a tolerance for the internal abuses that the regime continued to perpetrate. There is more to come out about the enforced repatriation of dissidents from the UK to Libya in the latter part of the last decade; and none of it will enhance Britain's reputation as a human rights defender in that period.

Equally at fault was the faith, at best naïve, that Gaddafi's son Saif would deliver the reforms he promised. No one who stood, as I did, a few metres away from him in a Tripoli hall as, dressed in his trademark designer blazer and jeans, he delivered his chillingly demagogic "Benghazi we are coming" speech directed at the rebels in eastern Libya, could have doubted where his true instincts lay.

So the British coalition's embrace of the no-fly zone, underpinned by UN authority, went some way towards exorcising those errors and even rehabilitating the idea of liberal interventionism. It was true that the government was caught almost unawares when it found itself on a war footing. The absence of a Russian or a Chinese veto of UN Security Resolution 1973 was hardly expected. But once it passed there was no going back, and David Cameron continued to fulfil the resolution throughout those difficult months when the military was complaining of having run out of targets, the so-called front line was shifting raggedly but with alarming rapidity east and west, and British ministers were grumbling about the costs – and seeming lack of result – of intervention.

Nor would the later complaint of, "if Libya why not Syria", where the geo-strategic risks were of a wholly different order, hold up. It amounted to saying that if you can't do everything you should do nothing. Moreover, the Libyans wanted it – and not only in the east. Sitting in his small kitchen in the Souk el Jouma district of Tripoli, a wanted anti-Gaddafi activist told me in April how his mood went up and down in direct relation to the intensity of the allied bombing of his home city.

But this was hardly the only challenge posed by the Arab Spring. The second-round Egyptian parliamentary election results announced on Saturday reinforce the success of the Muslim Brotherhood as comfortably the biggest single party – with a less predicted 20 per cent showing for the ultra-religious Salafist Al-Nour party – leaving Western powers pondering how to deal with a democracy in which Islamism is dominant.

Nick Clegg, internally perhaps the government's strongest advocate of engagement with the newly emerging forces in the Arab world, made congratulatory phone calls to leaders of the successful Hizb Ennhada party after the Tunisian elections. The Foreign Office's Middle East division has undergone a big, if belated, expansion. Even more significantly, earlier this month James Watt, the British Ambassador in Cairo, quietly met senior figures in the Brotherhood at the headquarters of their Freedom and Justice party after the first round of Egyptian elections – a sign that the UK government currently intends to deal with whoever wields power in the new Egypt.

If it does so, it will be coming down pragmatically on one side of a nascent argument over whether the Brotherhood are Islamists the West can do business with. It's one which may well be accentuated if the Republicans capture the US Presidency, since European politicians who have recently met Mitt Romney, supposedly the party's most centrist candidate, have been alarmed by his tendency to speak airily of "Islamism" as an undifferentiated global threat, with little emphasis, for example, on how the Arab spring has robbed al-Qa'ida of much of its appeal. Unsurprisingly this overlaps with the Mubarak-nostalgia of Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who in a Knesset speech in late November argued that the Arab world was "moving backward not forward" and using the uprisings to reinforce his contention that this was no time for "hasty concessions" to the Palestinians. The analysis has divided the Israeli polity, with Tzipi Livni, the opposition leader, arguing against the Netanyahu batten-down-the-hatches approach and for serious negotiations with the Palestinian President. But as long as Mr Netanyahu remains as politically strong as he does today, it will prevail.

In contrast to all this, perhaps the most articulate British political advocate since early in the Arab Spring of not falling into what he called "the rejectionist trap" has turned out to be the former foreign secretary David Miliband. Indeed those who choose to depict him as a clone of Tony Blair have to explain away his February blog, less than two weeks after his former boss praised Mubarak's participation in the "peace process" as "immensely courageous and a force for good". Mr Miliband instead argued that Mr Mubarak had become "a roadblock to resolution of the Palestinian issue". Mr Miliband has gone on to challenge a monolithic view of Islamism, pointing to Turkey and Indonesia as potential models for "synthesising Islam with modernity".

By all accounts the Muslim Brotherhood leadership assured Ambassador Watt this month that they had no wish to cancel the treaty with Israel or impose sharia law on the country. While accepting that not everything the Brotherhood says to Western visitors can be taken at face value, Mr Miliband has pointed to research at the University of North Carolina suggesting that as democracy entrenches itself, Islamist parties tend to lose support and modify their platforms in a centrist direction to attract votes. And he has argued that the "ballast" of Egyptian society remains business and its middle class. Take a single example; it seems doubtful that in a country in which up to 5 million people depended on tourism before the revolution that Egypt will easily accept the bikini/alcohol free "halal tourism" called for by the Salafists. And despite the frequent and simplistic depiction of the revolution as a deeply uneasy alliance between the "Google kids" and hard-line Islamists, no one who was in Tahrir Square in those heady early days of February could fail to be impressed by the numbers of professionals – lawyers, teachers, accountants, medics – boldly holding their ID cards aloft, complaining of their poverty and the difficulty of securing their children a good education, and declaring that for the first time they felt proud to be Egyptians.

Yet even if the most pessimistic prognoses for the aftermath of the Arab Spring are confounded, many questions will remain. Some concern Israel-Palestine. This is not just a matter of whether dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood will lead in time to engagement with its militant Palestinian offshoot, Hamas; although that could become an issue if Hamas fulfils (some) predictions by declaring a move away from armed combat as part of its reconciliation talks with Fatah.

More broadly, will Western governments – and especially the US – be driven by Israel to see the changes among its neighbours as militating against a solution of the Palestinian conflict, rather than the heavily enhanced incentive it should be to reach one?

But beyond all this, the most hopeful lesson for the West to learn is some humility. It did not make these revolutions, and it cannot stop them now. It can seek to ignore the newly emerging forces in the Arab world, as tragically the EU, thanks to a Franco-German block, chose to turn its back on Turkey by failing to hasten its accession. Or it can engage with them, albeit with its eyes open. There is no other choice.

Sport
Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez celebrate during Liverpool's game with Norwich
sport Another hurdle is out of the way for Brendan Rodgers' side
Arts & Entertainment
The original design with Charles' face clearly visible, which is on display around the capital
arts + ents The ad shows Prince Charles attired for his coronation in a crown and fur mantle with his mouth covered by a criss-cross of white duct tape
Sport
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sport LIVEFollow the latest news and scores from today's Premier League as Liverpool make a blistering start against Norwich
News
People White House officials refuse to make comment on 275,000 signatures that want Justin Bieber's US visa revoked
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
Sir Cliff Richard is to release his hundredth album at age 72
PEOPLESir Cliff Richard has used a candid appearance on an Australian talk show to address long-running speculation about his sexuality

Sport
Mourinho lost his temper as well as the match
sportLiverpool handed title boost as Sunderland smash manager’s 77-game home league run
News
The speeding train nearly hit this US politican during a lecture on rail safety
news As the saying goes, you have to practice what you preach
Sport
Mercedes Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain (front) drives ahead of Red Bull Formula One driver Daniel Ricciardo of Australia during the Chinese F1 Grand Prix at the Shanghai International circuit
sport Hamilton captured his third straight Formula One race with ease on Sunday, leading from start to finish to win the Chinese Grand Prix

Arts & Entertainment
Billie Jean King, who won the women’s Wimbledon title in 1967, when the first colour pictures were broadcast
tv
News
Snow has no plans to step back or reduce his workload
mediaIt's 25 years since Jon Snow first presented Channel 4 News, and his drive shows no sign of diminishing
Life & Style
food + drinkWhat’s not to like?
Voices
Clock off: France has had a 35‑hour working week since 1999
voicesThere's no truth to a law banning work emails after 6pm, but that didn’t stop media hysteria
Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Kingdom Tower
architecture
Life & Style
Lana Del Rey, Alexa Chung and Cara Delevingne each carry their signature bag
fashionMulberry's decision to go for the super-rich backfired dramatically
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit