Leading article: A new age of uncertainty, with no end in sight

Share
Related Topics

Addressing the Labour Party conference after 9/11, Tony Blair issued this much-quoted rallying cry. "The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us re-order this world around us." How high-handed those words sound today, and how wrong. The re-ordering he spoke of then entailed two costly wars and little else.

Now, almost a decade on, the geopolitical kaleidoscope has again been shaken. But less than two months from the start of street protests in Tunisia, it is increasingly evident how little power "we" have to reorder anything, even that part of the world immediately around us.

The speed of events is breath-taking. Just in the past week, the Bahraini Royal Family has tried to suppress pro-democracy protests by force, before eventually calling off the troops and proposing talks with the opposition. Demonstrations in Algeria and in Yemen resulted in violent clashes, even as Egyptians resumed their celebrations over the downfall of Hosni Mubarak in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Iran experienced a flurry of new unrest in an echo of the post-election protests 18 months ago. There were marches in Morocco in the west and in Azerbaijan in the east.

But the fiercest confrontations appear to have taken place in the east of Libya, where Colonel Gaddafi is said to have deployed heavy weapons and African mercenaries in an effort to reassert his rule. With what success is not yet apparent, but as many as 200 people are reported dead and hundreds injured, with the country's second city, Benghazi, possibly still under opposition control.

The spectre is of the whole region in turmoil: from Morocco in the west to Iran and possibly Central Asia in the east, with the Gulf and the Levant caught up in the maelstrom in between. With earlier protests reaching Jordan, and Morocco the latest country to be affected, even countries that have made efforts to reform may not be immune from the surging revolutionary tide. Change, so long in coming to this part of the world, seems ready to sweep across this vast region all at once.

With so much in flux, there are as yet more caveats than conclusions to be drawn. The first relates to our knowledge of what is really going on. While outsiders were able to follow events in Egypt and Bahrain more or less from minute to minute, Iran and Libya have enforced draconian restrictions on the media, so that the scale of the unrest there is hard to gauge, and it is only thanks to immensely brave individuals that the barest details of the atrocities in Libya, for instance, are becoming known.

The second relates to the double-edged nature of long-standing Western involvement. While it may be true that the urging of the US administration constrained the Egyptian army from using force and prompted the rulers' U-turn in Bahrain, the British rapprochement with Libya appears to have afforded no such leverage on Colonel Gaddafi. The truth is that, in most of these countries, we failed to exert pressure for political reform when we could and should have done. And what is happening now is a harvest that we helped to sow.

The third caveat relates to intervention. There is little that Western countries can now do beyond offering moral support to those campaigning for democracy in countries whose undemocratic leaders we have contrived to keep in power. Security interests and oil imports may be at risk, but we should have learned from the Suez debacle of 1956 that attempts to reverse the course of history are likely only to make a difficult and uncertain situation worse.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own