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

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The Independent Online

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.


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.


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.