As soon as commentators began to refer to the popular uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East as the ‘Arab Spring’, I began to worry that the near universal optimism that had accompanied the revolts might be misplaced. Remember the Prague Spring? In 1968, Alexander Dubcek’s attempt to replace hard-line Communism with social democracy failed as Soviet and Warsaw Pact tanks rumbled across the borders of Czechoslovakia. In recent weeks tanks have been rumbling through the streets of towns and cities throughout Syria, the only difference being that the forces crushing peaceful civilian demonstrators do not come from beyond Syria’s borders. They are the forces of the Assad regime itself.
My former TV Network al Jazeera has I believe played a major role in educating a whole generation of young people throughout the Middle East. Al Jazeera and the rise of social networking sites, the Internet and the cell phone have finally put paid to the old state run TV Networks. Today what may be happening in Damascus or Aleppo is immediate news throughout the whole region. But watching al Jazeera television is not in itself enough to spur the bravery and audacity of millions of people from Benghazi to Tunis, Cairo to Sana’a, who have matched, demonstrated and occupied. What I believe we are seeing is the unravelling of an old order of rigid dictatorships that were suffered by the majority because at the very least the same dictators offered low food and fuel prices and jobs for the youth. That compact is broken, because the dictators and the military can no longer fulfil their side of the bargain.
The massive spread of global communications, coupled with a better educated youth and a severe lack of opportunity, has created a perfect storm. In Tunisia, ordinary people appear to have made some solid advances; in Egypt some solid achievements, while in Syria, Yemen, Iran and Bahrain the old order is fighting bloodily to retain its privileges.
Britain’s record throughout the area has been distinctly chequered. Our support for regimes such as Mubarak’s in Egypt compromises us, while our military intervention in Iraq was a disaster. David Cameron and William Hague have even managed to subvert the UN Security Council’s express wish to see humanitarian intervention based on the ‘right to protect’ in Libya. Britain rightly went to the aid of the civilians of Benghazi as yet another dictator; in this case Colonel Gadaffi sought to crush them. But Britain and France have also been engaged in seeking regime change in Libya, which is not part of any UN Resolution. That the regime has changed is absolutely welcome, and I for one am not unhappy that some serious training and assistance went on behind the scenes. But it will be a whole lot more difficult to garner the support of Russia and China at the UN Security Council again.
Of course the real answer is that the UN doctrine of ‘Responsibility to Protect’, and the military planning and direction of any future campaigns to protect civilians from their rulers, must be commanded by the UN itself – and not be contracted out.