The fact that neither delegation has walked out of Geneva II is a triumph of sorts

There will be huge problems ahead, but negotiations are the only way out

Share

This time three years ago, I was on a weekend break in Montreux when the foreign desk asked if I could go to Tunisia: the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was tottering; the air space was being shut down rapidly and one of the last flights in was from Geneva.

I had just finished a fairly eventful and exhausting trip to Afghanistan and was less than enthusiastic to break off from what promised to be a rather agreeable few days. Surely, I argued, this was just a little local difficulty which would soon pass. When that did not work I tried a tactic which is normally quite successful at The Independent: it was, I pointed out, going to be quite expensive. But the editor was adamant I was told and, after a nine-hour wait at the departure terminal, I arrived in Tunis to find hundreds of people huddled in the airport with gunfire echoing outside.

That was the beginning of the Arab Spring. Ben Ali and his avaricious wife, Leila Trabelsi, soon fled, along with most of their kleptocratic coterie. We covered the retributions taken against the few who could not escape; we saw the leather-jacketed secret police goons laying into demonstrators on Avenue Bourguiba; witnessed the first signs of the problems that came with the end of four decades of totalitarianism. I went down to Sidi Bouzid, the remote, dusty town where the revolution had begun after a street vendor, Mohammad Bouazizi, had set himself on fire in protest after years of abuse by officials. The final straw, so it went, was a humiliating slap on the face in public by a female municipal official.

The time came to leave. I remember a group of us sat around the bar of the Hotel Afrique, including the late and much missed Marie Colvin of The Sunday Times, musing whether other Arab states would be affected and, if so, which ones? Syria came up in the conversation with the consensus that the enmity towards the rulers from the population probably did not run as deeply there as some other places. We wondered whether it would be worth going to see what happens after Friday prayers that week in Cairo. The more astute ones did.

Syria: Innocent civilians caught in the crossfire of the siege of Adra as Islamist rebels are accused of massacre  

I flew out of Geneva airport yesterday once again, this time after covering the talks between Syria’s regime and rebels. The opening day was in Montreux – the great powers who have had months to plan did not realise that the scheduled dates clashed with a luxury watch-makers’ conference in Geneva.

A lot has happened, of course, since the fall of Ben Ali. The flames have swept through Egypt and Libya, and scorched Bahrain and Yemen. What unfolded has changed perceptions, the anger and frustration has taken different routes, hopes of great changes for the good has dissipated. In September 2011, after the fall of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, on my way out through Tunisia, I went back to Sidi Bouzid. The family of Mohammed Bouazizi had left town amid acrimony with neighbours; a plaque put up to him, the martyr, had been torn down and graffiti in his praise painted over. Fedya Hamid, whose “slap rang around the world” had been freed from prison, all charges against her dropped.

I returned to Tunisia to cover the first free elections, but news came through of Muammar Gaddafi’s capture and killing as the plane was landing and I, along with other correspondents, diverted to Misrata where his corpse had been laid out.

Government U-turn will see hundreds of Syrian refugees come to Britain  

The focus move on to Syria and, in our visit there, we saw the country dismembered in the longest and bloodiest war of the Arab Spring. There was savagery, destruction and deaths, including those of journalists; among them Marie Colvin, who died in Homs. Reporting from the areas outside the regime’s control became hugely risky, at present there are more than 30 members of the media missing, some colleagues we know well.

Geneva II is meant to bring the bloodshed to an end. It has a long way to go before that and watching the self-serving posturing of some of the members of both the delegations in Montreux and Geneva did not fill one with confidence. But the very fact that it is taking place and, as yet, neither side has walked out, is in itself a triumph of sorts. There will be huge problems ahead, especially over what happens to Bashar al-Assad, but negotiations are the only way out of the madness.

Tunisia has had its own problems, but less severe than others which had gone through the upheaval. The parliament in Tunis has just adopted a new constitution, the first since the revolution, a new caretaker government is being formed. Away from international attention, the first state of the Arab Spring is taking faltering steps towards stability.

 

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Key Account Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A really exciting opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Multi Trade Operative

£22000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An established, family owned de...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Services Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An exciting position has risen for a Customer ...

Recruitment Genius: Tour Drivers - UK & European

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join a is a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Children who fled the violence in the Syrian city of Aleppo play at a refugee camp in Jabaa, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley  

A population bigger than London's has been displaced in Syria, so why has the Government only accepted 90 refugees?

David Hanson
Amjad Bashir said Ukip had become a 'party of ruthless self-interest'  

Ukip on the ropes? Voters don’t think so

Stefano Hatfield
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project