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

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Ed Miliband created a crisis of confidence about himself within Labour when he forgot to mention the deficit in his party conference speech  

The political parties aren't all the same – which means 2015 will be a 'big-choice' election

Andrew Grice
 

Beware of the jovial buffoon who picks fights overseas

Boyd Tonkin
Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect