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: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Mosul falls: Talk of Iraq retaking the town, held by IS since June, is unconvincing  

Isis on the run? The US portrayal is very far from the truth

Patrick Cockburn
David Cameron:  

David Cameron: Britain is now the success story of Europe

David Cameron
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk