British foreign policy and the "Arab Spring" - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents


The wave of uprisings that swept across the Middle East and North Africa region at the start of 2011 and which came to be known as the Arab Spring continues to represent both the greatest challenge and the greatest opportunity to date for this Government's foreign policy. It presented a practical, consular challenge to ensure the safety of tens of thousands of British nationals abroad; a diplomatic challenge as the Government sought to engage constructively with the old and new regimes; and a military challenge to protect civilians in Libya.

Economic problems including high unemployment, poverty and inequality, as well as a lack of political and social participation and human rights were all underlying causes of the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, which united diverse groups through a shared sense of economic, social and political injustice and opposition to autocratic government. The FCO seems to have understood the long-term problems well, but the number of FCO staff, its linguistic expertise and its information-gathering methods were all questioned by witnesses. While it is not reasonable to expect diplomats to have predicted the outbreak of the uprisings with precision, it is reasonable to believe that had there been more emphasis on political reporting and larger political teams in post, this would have improved the FCO's information-gathering before the uprisings, and its ability to respond once they had begun.

The Government provided a good consular service to British nationals in Egypt and Tunisia, but the challenging evacuation of British nationals from Libya exposed serious weaknesses in the FCO's emergency consular response systems.

The UK has a difficult history over many years in the MENA region and is perceived as having prioritised its own interests, particularly in stability, commerce and counter-terrorism, over the promotion of more representative governments and criticism of human rights violations. British statements on human rights and democracy are consequently met with scepticism in the region today. The Government must avoid discrediting its 'values based' approach to the Arab Spring by promising more than it can deliver.

The UK's targeted bilateral support for the Arab Spring through its Arab Partnership Initiative is an important signal of British support for democratisation. However, its value as a tool of UK soft power is limited if its projects are not visible to most of the public in the region. The UK's valuable 'soft power' tools in the British Council and the BBC World Service should be supported and maintained.

It is difficult to judge the success of the large multilateral initiatives to provide support for the Arab Spring, and some have argued that support is not reaching the countries that need it. It is important that the UK and its EU and G8 Deauville Partners are seen to be keeping their promises to states in the MENA region. The UK should make the Deauville Partnership a priority of its G8 presidency in 2013.

The EU's failure to apply conditionality to its aid to former dictators has consequences for their attempts to 'learn lessons' and apply conditionality today. It is right that there be a relationship between aid and human rights, but this should be done sensitively and gradually for struggling and fragile democracies.

The Government has rightly begun to develop greater contact with Islamist parties in the region, which have proved successful at elections. It should work to deepen its engagement with Islamist parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, at this early stage in order to demonstrate the assistance and support available to those who respect human rights and democratic reforms.

The suffering and loss of life in Syria is unacceptable and the Government is right to seek a consensus both within and outside the UN. We are concerned that the consequences of the perceived 'stretching' of the terms of the UN resolutions on Libya are now impacting upon efforts to resolve the situation in Syria, although it is by no means certain that a less interventionist approach in Libya would have guaranteed Russian and Chinese agreement on Syria.

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© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 19 July 2012