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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Online Advertising Account Executive , St Pauls , London

£26K-30k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

Advertising Account Executive - Online, Central London

£25K-28k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

Senior Infrastructure Consultant

£50000 - £65000 Per Annum potentially flexible for the right candidate: Clearw...

Public Sector Audit - Bristol

£38000 per annum + Benefits: Pro-Recruitment Group: Do you have experience of ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Wages are on the rise (so long as you skew the figures)

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
 

It’s two decades since ‘education, education, education’, but still Britain’s primary school admissions are a farce

Jane Merrick
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

Education: Secret of Taunton's success

Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
10 best smartphones

10 best smartphones

With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
The pain of IVF

The pain of IVF

As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal