Arab Freedom Should Wait

Syrian Town

Mali, Syria, Blowback, and the disastrous  Arab Spring

THE Arab Spring has been one of the most significant events in world affairs over the last decade. Images of stone throwing youths challenging doddering kleptomaniac despots has been humbling to watch. It makes political debates about the sugar content of cereal seem rather embarrassing by contrast.

Many in the West had high hopes for the revolutions. Yet for all the sunny optimism and laudable aims of the various movements, the Arab Spring has bought as many problems as it has solved.

The Arabs once lead the world in astronomy, mathematics, masonry, chemistry, poetry and tolerance.

The region was depressingly well placed for an uprising. The Arabs once lead the world in astronomy, mathematics, masonry, chemistry, poetry and tolerance. Today, the combined economic output of the members of the Arab League is smaller than that of Hong Kong. That’s an entire civilisation outperformed by a single Westernised city. South Korea and IBM individually account for more patent applications than the Arab world combined. Over ninety percent of books produced in the Middle East are religious in nature, an appalling statistic, and there are many more.

And this is partly our fault. The West had a very cosy relationship with the previous administrations of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. For all our talk of freedom and the rule of law, Western policy makers took certain comfort from the stability that these regimes represented; we may not have liked their methods, but they were predictable. They knew what side their bread is buttered on when it came to the big issues. None of the previous leaders were interested in territorial aggrandizement, and all had come to terms with Israel. Even Gadaffi had been coaxed into shelving his madcap schemes, if not his wardrobe…

The region, it seemed, was more stable than it had ever been since the Ottomans ran the show.

To be sure, there were some Iraq-giddy NeoCons frustrated that their liberty agenda had been curtailed. However Realists such as myself favoured the gradual approach. These states would find their own way, with a bit of good-natured prodding and friendship on our part. The institutions of a liberal democracy such as a free press, trade unions, independent judiciary and female emancipation cannot be installed overnight. They certainly can’t be strapped to the tip of a cruise missile fired from a ship in the Persian Gulf.

And it was working. Slowly to be sure, but there was progress. Tunisia under Ben Ali was a benchmark for the region. Egypt was a flirting with semi-decent elections and was on talking terms with Israel. The real prize however was Libya. The deal was simple. Gadaffi would drop the terrorists and WMD plans. In return sanctions would go and investment would pour in. It was working well. The former terrorist-in-chief was helping Western intelligence agencies track and hunt down a range of unpleasant actors in the region and the Liyban economy creaked back into life.

The Arab Spring has been a disaster for Western intelligence agencies.

Then disaster struck. A Tunisian stall holder self immolated in protest at the government, and in doing so set the region ablaze with him.


You may argue that we should be rejoicing. The oppressed have overthrown their tyrants. Surely that’s a good thing? On an emotional level yes, it’s delightful. But emotions have no place in the real world of power and influence that is international politics.


Firstly, the Arab Spring has been a disaster for Western intelligence agencies. Priceless contacts and relationships with the previous administrations have been lost. Our ability to track and monitor hostile groups and individuals has been severely compromised. They might not have been the most pleasant organisations to work with, but that’s the price you sometimes have to pay for keeping yourself safe. Suck it up and move on.

Secondly, the speed with which the principal Western Powers turned on Libya won’t soon be forgotten. A very public pact was made. Play ball with us, and we’ll play ball with you. Yet as soon as the violence started, Western policy got squeamish and washed their hands of it. Worse still, we took an active part in his downfall, and eventual brutal demise.

Do we seriously expect to be taken seriously if we ever try to make a similar deal again?

Thirdly, there is a real danger that the Arab Spring could enable some of the very worst elements in the region to come to the fore. In 1978 the West failed to support the Pro-Western Shah of Iran, and in return we got the Ayatollahs and 40 years of belligerence. It is too early to say what will replace the pro-Western leaders of North Africa. Tunisia looks reasonably calm, but was far further down the path to democracy, and so its civil institutions are better able to contain the radicals. Egypt could be another story entry, as Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood implement their new constitution, steering Egypt in a very un-secular direction.

Assad looked at what happened to Libya and knows that the West are no longer honest brokers.

Mali has produced the latest example of what happens when governments are toppled without adequate planning. North Africa is now awash with weapons and radicalism. From Algeria to the Red Sea decades of neo-colonial stability and progress have been undone. Chad, northern Mali, Western Sudan and the Central African Republic have now to deal with the problems caused by short-sighted Western publics wanting an end to dictatorship, whatever the costs. At the time of writing, French forces had been deployed and were advancing on rebel held areas in the north of Mali. At the same time, heavily armed Islamists had attacked a natural gas installation in Algeria, taken foreign workers hostage.

Finally there are the horrific levels of violence. Close to 60,000 people have died in Syria since the rebellion started there. None of those people needed to die. The mafia style regime of Assad wasn’t perfect, but progress was being made. Before the Arab Spring, Damascus was starting to leave the orbit of Russia and Iran. But thanks to our dogmatic insistence on freedom, we’ve forced Syria back into the arms of the authoritarian powers. Our further hostility has made a negotiated peace impossible. Assad looked at what happened to Libya and knows that the West are no longer honest brokers.

I have made no apologies for putting British and Western interests at the fore. And the system of Western backed dictators worked. We had compliant strong men in place, sectarianism was under control, religious freedom for minorities was reasonably well established, trade was flourishing, Israel was more secure than it had been in 40 years, meddling Iran was kept at bay, and the region was at peace.

The Middle East may have shrugged of imperialism by proxy, but what follows could be far worse than anything dreamed up in the map rooms of Western capitals. At least Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States are still on side…


  1. Here’s a briefer way of putting that comment: this column on the Arab Spring reminds me of the furious debate among Americans, particularly the intelligence community, in the 50s over ‘who lost China?’. But in fact, it wasn’t anyone in the US that were responsible for China turning communist, it was the Chinese themselves. The failure of the US intelligence agencies was not seeing it coming.

    And then they repeated the same mistakes in 1979 with the Shah…

  2. You seem to be under the misguided impression that the West somehow caused the Arab Spring. Quite the opposite, in fact – it happened spontaneously, and clearly took Western governments by surprise. It’s also questionable whether they could have done much to prevent it. I’m not sure if any amount of Western support could have kept Gadaffi and Mubarak in power – and even if it could, what would the cost have been of publicly siding with dictators against their people?

    I recognise that the consequences of the Arab Spring have been mixed at best, and downright awful at worst; for Western powers, while we have gained in some respects (gaining a more friendly government in Libya, mainly) we have lost in others (increased instability and the loss of reliable regimes like Mubarak’s). But that doesn’t mean the Arab Spring was a mistake by the West – it mostly wasn’t the doing of the West at all.

    It must also be said that the ‘stability’ that regimes like Mubarak’s and Assad’s provided was somewhat illusory: as the uprisings showed, they alienated large numbers of their people, and were never going to last forever. The real mistake of the West was not planning properly for their downfall, and not doing enough to support liberal and secular movements in those countries, thus allowing the Islamists to take greater advantage of the chaos that has unfolded.

    • Thanks for your comments.

      I would not say that the West caused the Arab Spring, but they could have tried to nip it in the bud, like Bahrain has done reasonably well.

      As much as I would have liked the West to have been able to plan for the downfall of teh despots, its difficult to see what practical steps could have been taken. Any help we gave would have made the moderates look like Western stooges.


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