How the West was caught out by the Arab Spring

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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.

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