Arab Spring goes full circle

THE SEASIDE resort of Sousse, where the massacre of 38 foreign holidaymakers took place more than a week ago, is about 100 miles from Sidi Bouzid, the town where the Arab Spring began.

Sidi Bouzid’s proximity is strikingly close and – now that the immediate shock of the act of terrorism has passed – it bears contemplation.

When on December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old fruit seller sick of bullying at the hands of corrupt local police, set himself alight in front of the governor’s house in dusty, little-visited Sidi Bouzid – previously best known by historians for a minor battle during the Second World War – he triggered the revolution that was to follow in Tunisia.

Frustration with the corrupt authoritarian regime of President Ben Ali overflowed with many violent protests (Bouazizi died several days later). The panic-stricken ruler, fearing his game was up, fled in a plane to Saudi Arabia, where he still lives in Jeddah.  The people took over.

Within weeks, President Mubarak fell in Egypt. The Egyptians, inspired by the example of Tunisia, were eager to topple their ageing autocrat.

Libya was next. By October 2011, Gaddafi was dead, dragged from a gutter and savaged in the street.

Trouble flared across the Middle East: in Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan and, most bloodily, in Syria. Leaders who had ruled with an iron fist for years were under pressure.

In Syria, President Assad has clung on, but at what cost? The ramifications of his loss of control of much of his country are now being felt across the world. Isis, which thrived in Syria’s lawlessness, is now the world’s undisputed public enemy number one.

Coping with Isis is now, of course, at the forefront of western foreign policy, more pressing even than President Putin’s goings-on in Ukraine. (Putin has cynically used western paralysis in the Middle East to seize initiative at a time when the focus has been elsewhere – yet another effect of the Arab Spring).

So Sidi Bouzid represents a lot. And so does the June 26 attack in Sousse.

When I visited Sidi Bouzid for my travel book, A Tourist in the Arab Spring, almost exactly a year after Mohamed Bouazizi’s death, the Arab Spring still evoked hopeful thoughts.

I sought out his grave in his home village, just outside Sidi Bouzid. His simple burial place was no different from others in the graveyard. With the help of a local I found it and squatted beside his stone, wondering what the corpse beneath the coppery soil had unwittingly begun.

Those I later met as I travelled across Tunisia, through Libya and on to Egypt, crossing the country as far as its border with Israel on the Sinai Peninsula, were in two minds about the Arab Spring.

The revolts could either result in liberalism and a more western way of life or to a difficult future in which Islamic radicals filled the power vacuum left by the dictators, they said.

People were nervously contemplating the likelihood of the latter. The greatest fear of those I talked to in Libya was of the revolution against Gaddafi leading to “another Iraq”.

Well, the worst is happening now. Seen through the prism of tourism alone, things do not look good. A holiday in Libya now would be suicidal. A failed jihadist attack at the Karnak Temple in Luxor in Egypt on June 10 has highlighted the fragility of peace in Egypt (the two terrorists alone died, at the hands of  alert security officers).

The massacre in Sousse shows that even in Tunisia – considered by many to be the most successful and stable of the Arab Spring countries (despite the deaths of 21 at the Bardo Museum in Tunis in March) – all is very far from well.

As anyone can see, law and order is unraveling across these once, on the surface, stable states. (It is a bitter irony that the former dictators’ laws may not have been fair, but at least they delivered order).

The Middle East has witnessed an extraordinary rush of events, with a staggering lack of effective reaction among the leaders of the West.

The arrival of Isis in early 2014 (the group’s threat had seeming gone unnoticed until the moment black flags appeared as towns fell in Iraq) sealed that fate of the revolutions started in 2011. It also showed  how little “experts” knew of what was happening on the ground.

But back to Tunisia. Jihadists so close to the town where the Arab Spring began marks a new phase in these troubled times.

Events have now gone full circle, and another circle is about to begin.

What will boats across the Mediterranean Sea and the prospect of failed European states, with Greece looking as though it may lead the way, mean to Europe?

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