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

1  Introduction

1.  The Arab Spring is a term used to describe a wave of popular uprisings that began in Tunisia in December 2010 and swept across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region in the first half of 2011, astonishing observers and succeeding in overthrowing decades-old authoritarian rule in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and posing a challenge to undemocratic governments in Bahrain, Syria and elsewhere. It has variously been described as the biggest geopolitical event since the end of the Cold War; "already set to overtake the 2008 financial crisis and 9/11 as the most important development of the early 21st century";[1] and in the words of our own Prime Minister: "a precious moment of opportunity for this region".[2]

2.  The term 'Arab Spring' is considered by some to be misleading, suggesting a pan-Arab movement and conferring positive connotations. The use of the term 'Spring' also became more problematic as the uprisings and transitions continued and lengthened, and it is now over 18 months since they began. Some observers, including the FCO, prefer the term 'Arab Awakening'. We have used 'Arab Spring' in this report because it is the most commonly used and understood term for the uprisings and their aftermath.

3.  The Arab Spring arguably represents the greatest foreign policy challenge for our own Government to date. The region is vital to the UK's commercial, energy, and security interests, and the changes wrought by the Arab Spring revolutions have enormous implications for Britain and British foreign policy. In its early days, the Arab Spring presented a practical, consular challenge to ensure the safety of tens of thousands of British nationals abroad, as well as a diplomatic challenge as the Government sought to engage constructively with the old regimes as they reacted and then crumbled, and new leaders as they emerged in each state. In Libya, as Colonel Gaddafi[3] threatened to react to the uprisings with military force, the UK was among the countries leading diplomatic condemnation of violence and was in the forefront of a military intervention to protect civilians. UK foreign policy must adjust to the loss of old strategic partners such as former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak; do what it can to guard against the risk of instability and economic collapse in the region; and support what it is hoped will be the emergence of new democratic states, with all of the stabilisation, development, and support for democratisation that the transitions entail.

4.  The Arab Spring today is far from complete and events are moving quickly. At the time of publication of this report, the three states that are the subject of our inquiry—Tunisia, Egypt and Libya—have entered transitional periods but have yet to agree new constitutions; Libya is yet to hold parliamentary elections and Egyptian authorities have recently dissolved the democratically elected parliament. Each state is experiencing some form of continuing unrest, and recent developments in Egypt, whose army has announced new powers for itself and limited those of the new president, have thrown the democratic transition into confusion. The new Egyptian president, Muslim Brotherhood member Dr Mohamed Mursi, will take up his role in the absence of either a parliament or a constitution. Other governments in the region may yet be challenged further by uprisings, and some have begun a reform process in their own states. This report will be published in the midst of events and will inevitably be overtaken by further developments. It should be read as a report on the interim period, not the transitions as a whole.

5.  We launched our inquiry into the implications for British foreign policy of the Arab Spring in July 2011. We chose to look in particular at the contribution the UK can make to reform and reconstruction in Arab countries. Our initial focus was on Egypt and Tunisia, as these two countries appeared to have moved into a post-revolution transition period. The inquiry set out to answer the following questions:

  • What forces are driving the movement for reform and reconstruction in Egypt and Tunisia, and to what extent are they paralleled elsewhere in the Arab world? 
  • Could the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) realistically have done more to anticipate the 'Arab Spring'? Did FCO staff in Egypt and Tunisia have the right level and mix of skills, including linguistic skills? Was there too much focus on contact with the previous regime rather than tracking popular, oppositional or youth opinion? Was policy overly dominated by considerations of regional stability and counter-terrorist co-operation? What contingency plans were in place for a change of regime in either country? Are there lessons to be learned in terms of intelligence gathering and strategic planning?
  • How well did the FCO perform in providing consular assistance to British citizens at the time of the political upheavals in Egypt and Tunisia?
  • What specific assistance can the British Government give to help Egypt, Tunisia and other Arab countries build the institutions of democracy and civil society, and revive their economies? Does the FCO have the right resources in place to deliver its objectives in the region? What role can the BBC World Service and the British Council play? How can the British Government best work with allies and through international institutions to support reform in Egypt and Tunisia?
  • What are the prospects for establishing stable multi-party democracy and a human rights culture in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere?
  • What will be the future role of Islamist movements in the region and what should be the British Government's stance towards them?
  • What are the implications of the 'Arab Spring' for Egyptian/Israeli relations and regional security?
  • To what extent can Egypt and Tunisia function as role models for the wider Arab world?
  • Bearing in mind the Prime Minister's comments in Kuwait in February 2011 about potential conflict between British "interests" and "values", do recent events in Egypt and Tunisia, and in the 'Arab Spring' generally, necessitate a radical reappraisal of UK policy towards the Middle East and North Africa?

In November 2011, once military action in Libya had ceased, we announced that our inquiry would be extended to cover Libya.

6.  We received 33 written submissions of evidence and took oral evidence from Intissar Kherigi, Dr Eugene Rogan, Dr Claire Spencer, Robin Lamb, Lord Malloch-Brown, Alistair Burt MP (the FCO Minister with responsibility for the Middle East and North Africa), Dr Christian Turner and Jon Davies. A full list of witnesses is on page 90. As part of the inquiry we undertook a visit to Egypt, Tunisia and Libya at the end of February / early March 2012, during which we met government ministers, electoral candidates, new political parties, civil society representatives and activists. We also held an informal meeting with Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohamed Kamal Amr, in London in February 2012. We took the opportunity to question the Foreign Secretary on the Arab Spring when he gave evidence on developments in UK foreign policy in September 2011. Our report also draws on the Defence Committee's report on the UK's military operations in Libya.[4]

1   Foreign Secretary speech to the Times CEO Summit Africa, 22 March 2011, via the FCO website (  Back

2   Prime Minister speech to the National Assembly in Kuwait, 22 February 2011, via Number 10 website ( Back

3   The surname is spelled in a number of different ways. Here we have chosen to follow the spelling used in Hansard. Other sources, including the FCO, have used alternative spellings such as 'Qadhafi'. Where quotations used in this report have used alternative spellings we have allowed them to stand. Back

4   Defence Committee, Ninth Report of Session 2010-12, Operations in Libya, HC 950 Back

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Prepared 19 July 2012