Adrian Hamilton: The end of the world as we know it

We are living through a period of unprecedented global uncertainty and flux. From wars and natural disasters to economic and political strife, what we thought we knew has changed for ever

Who would have thought it? The answer is nobody. If anyone had said at the beginning of the year that, by March, the Arab world would not only be in uproar but would have peaceably got rid of two of its longest serving autocrats, that the UN would have sanctioned a US-led military intervention in a Muslim country and that the world's second largest economy would have been overwhelmed by a tsunami, they would have been dismissed as a sad delusionist seeking what they might dream of, but not what they could reasonably predict.

And yet here we are, barely into the second decade of the century and all this is coming to pass. It's not the unpredictability of events that makes them so important – unpredictability is always part of human affairs – but the profound changes they represent that makes one feel that this is a real moment in history.

First and foremost among the unexpected is the uprising across the Arab world. Revolts in the Middle East are not new. Half the rulers were brought there as a result of coups a generation ago. But this one is different. It has happened spontaneously, it has spread across boundaries on Twitter and mobile phones and it seems to have arisen from no special political group or with any real organisation.

For decade after decade the Arabs of North Africa and the Gulf seemed to accept a state in which democracy, if it existed at all, was just a fig leaf for kings and presidents to give themselves 99 per cent approval ratings, suppressing dissent and rewarding their family and cronies with the benefits of oil income and any growth there was. Neo-colonialism was partly to blame, of course, and was blamed vociferously. In the interests of the much-vaunted word "stability", and for the grubbier reasons of oil and money, Western governments propped up regimes in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and right across North Africa that, by any normal standards of progress, should have been consigned to the dustbin of history several generations ago.

That is one startling new feature of current developments. Its common cry is not a demand for specifics, but a call for change by classes and age groups that have simply grown tired of corruption and economic and social stultification. They want freedom, but above all, they want to do away with existing power structures that they see, rightly, as having lowered their horizons and limited their activities.

The unemployed youth is clearly a major factor in this. Look at the statistics and virtually every country recording demonstrations today has between 30-40 per cent of their current population aged under 25 and, very often, something like 20 per cent rate of youth unemployment. It is not unique to the Arab world – one only has to think of Europe to see the parallels – but that is where it is at its most extreme and the pot closest to boiling over. One could add to that other factors, such as the increasing urbanisation of even the emptiest countries. There have been marches of the landless and the starving, especially in Asia, but what has made these revolts potent is that crowds can so quickly gather in the squares on the quick wind of mobile-phone messages.

To which one might suggest something else that makes this movement so special and so surprising in an Arab context, which is the prominent role of women among the demonstrators. Time and time again, the cameras and the microphones of reporters find as the most articulate spokespeople of the protesters articulate women of all ages. It may well be possible to exaggerate the development. Articulation before the camera is not necessarily a signal of empowerment. But clearly education, especially in the formally secular countries such as Egypt, and Tunisia and Shia Iran, is producing a new generation of graduate women with strong views of their own on society and politics.

The other great surprise of this movement, and the one that has caught the Middle East "experts" off guard, is the speed at which peaceful demonstration has led to the ousting of two of the Middle East's longest-serving rulers, President Mubarak of Egypt and Ben Ali of Tunisia, almost without a fight and within weeks of the first indications of dissent. All sorts of reasons can be adumbrated for why this should be so in those countries and not in Libya, Bahrain or – at this moment – Yemen. Oil is one factor. The wealth that comes with it, and is accumulated by the rulers and their close associates, makes it perhaps easier to buy off change, as the Saudis and other Gulf states are now desperately doing. Without much oil or gas, Tunisia and Egypt have been left with higher populations, but without the resources to placate them when the prices of commodities rise, as they have been doing.

But the other reason is the army. The beneficiary of an army coup himself, the first thing that Colonel Gaddafi did on coming to power was to neutralise the armed forces, depriving them of equipment and pay, while building up a small group of highly-equipped and paid special forces around himself. It is what has given him the edge in the weeks before the no-fly-zone was imposed but, with limited numbers, makes him vulnerable to air power now.

In Tunisia and Egypt on the other hand, the army has played a much more important, and neutral, role in the past. Once Mubarak's and Ben Ali's security forces proved unable to deal with the crowds, they were forced to call in the army. And, just as in the collapse of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe, it was the reluctance of the armed forces and the police to fire on their own people that finally decided the fate of the regime. If there is hope that regime change may now be about to occur in Yemen, it will be for the same reason. The spilling of civilian blood has turned the stomach of the generals.

Of course, it is possible from precisely this kind of analysis to predict that the wave of uprisings will finally change nothing, that the armies are playing a game of their own and will serve as conservers of the past and not the bridge to the future, that the suppression of protest in Bahrain will prove the norm, not the exception, and that the Middle East experts will declare: "You see, we were right, this was always going to be just a flash in the pan. The Arab world will never really change." Perhaps it won't. At this point no one can be certain of the outcome. But prediction misses the point. The people of the Arab world have risen up in peaceful protest. They have declared that they have had enough of the past as present. However it ends, the terms of reference of debate and the future politics can never be the same.

What is more, this time the Arabs have done it for themselves. This must be the first revolt in half a century and more when the cry (other than by a cornered Gaddafi) has not been directed against Western imperialists in general and America in particular. Nor indeed has it all been blamed on Israel, although Israeli spokesmen, with the now-discredited Tony Blair in tow, continue to whine about keeping the Muslim League out of politics, as if they didn't have religious extremists sitting in their own cabinet as part of the ruling coalition.

This is an Arab movement, acted out with extraordinary courage by the Arabs themselves and with no reference, other than in Libya, to the West. Even in Bahrain there is no call on outside forces and little sign, despite the propaganda of the ruling royal family and neighbouring Saudi Arabia, that Iran is stirring up the passions. The potential importance of this in a world which has always regarded the Middle East as a source of irredeemable mischief, cannot be overestimated. Where the Arabs now go, all sorts of countries where corruption is ripe and an autocratic government rules (think Russia and Iran, never mind Central Asia) may follow.

Nor should the world reaction to these uprisings be underestimated in its consequences. As military intervention in Libya moves from the initial phase of saving Benghazi from fall to disputes over war aims, it is easy enough to be cynical about the actions and the motivations of those involved. It may yet end in messy confusion and allied discord. But the fact is that the Western world this time has waited for Arab support and, more significantly, has acted through the United Nations. At the beginning of the year, the UN seemed to be totally marginalised as the US under President Obama pursued its own goals and the rest of the world largely ignored it.

You would have to be very naive indeed to think that a new era of international co-operation was dawning. Colonel Gaddafi has the rare distinction of uniting everybody against him. His behaviour has been so erratic and so-self centred that only Zimbabwe (for obvious reasons of his support) has much time for him. That combination of events is unlikely to repeat itself when it comes to Bahrain or Yemen or anywhere else. But that should not blind us to the underlying point that, this time round, the US has only been a reluctant leader of Western intervention, that Arab support has made intervention possible and that the UN is once more seen – just as it was in the days of the Cold War – as a place where co-operation can and should be based.

If the uprisings in the Arab world provide half the things you never expected this year – that the Arab citizenry would rise up at all, that it would be nothing to do with the West, that it should succeed so quickly in removing two of the longest serving autocrats, that should be spontaneous, organised by mobile phone rather than political grouping, and that it should result in a joint Muslim-Western military intervention and a return to the UN for sanction – then the other major events has to be the earthquake and resulting tsunami in Japan.

There's nothing new to either eruption, of course. Japan, on the centre of an earthquake zone, has been preparing for them for decades, imposing the strictest building standards and building up the sea walls around the coasts. What was unexpected was the sheer force of nature as the waves simply swept over the seawalls, carrying all – trucks, houses and installations – before them and producing the greatest crisis in nuclear power since Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. That it should happen in a country of such engineering and technical proficiency as Japan, in a nation so apparently well-prepared, has made everyone in the developed and developing world alike sit up and look to its own.

The crisis is still unfolding of course, although it has been knocked off the media lead stories by Libya. The more that is learnt, the more we're back to all the old ills of Three-Mile Island, the ignored safety warnings, the cosy relationship between regulator and utility company and the hiding of the true extent of the problems once they blew up. For the Japanese themselves, that has consequences enough in their trust in government and business. For the rest of the world it is the sense of foreboding aroused by a threatened meltdown that has special implications on not only people's health but the food chain and the environment.

In a deeper sense, however, the earthquake and tsunami, happening in an advanced industrial nation, has worked on all the nascent and growing fears about nature unbalanced by human development. The real relationship with climate warming may be tenuous. But in the public mind there is a sense that nature is more powerful than technology and that somehow mankind has overreached himself. Japan knew it was on a geological fault line, it prepared for it and then found its efforts puny in the face of overwhelming force. Fear of nature and fear of nuclear are the two unlooked for legacies of a country that thought itself prepared.

The other reasons for declaring this a moment of historic importance are more conjectural. Events in history tend to gain their significance for acting within broader developments. We have been through the banking and economic crisis of 2007-2009. We have had plenty of predictions that this was the end of capitalism as we know it, the beginning of a new hegemony led by China and India, the launch of a new world constrained by climate change.

None of it has happened. The measures used to tackle the banking crisis and the mountain of debt in the West are exactly the same as we've used so often before. Capitalism hasn't collapsed. Government and consumers are behaving not very differently than before.

And yet you cannot have crises of this magnitude without change. Events in the Arab world and in Japan are clearly particular to themselves. But the sense they have given of an old order that has run its course, that no longer responds to the feelings of its people, are not unique.

Consider the list of complaints – corruption that enriches the few and oppresses the many, political systems (democratic as well as autocratic) that have lost the confidence of the population, industrial solutions that cannot cope with catastrophe. They are common cries of much of the world.

If the one dominating factor of events today is their unpredictability, then it would be foolish to predict where they will end up. We don't even begin to know. But the one thing I am sure of is that history is on the move, and we're only just at the beginning.

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