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

2  The Arab Spring uprisings

The causes of the Arab Spring

7.  There was general agreement among witnesses as to the long-term causes of the Arab Spring revolutions. It is clear that the protests as a whole were not ideological, in that they did not seek to impose a particular set of beliefs or order. Instead, they united discontented citizens from across political, economic, class and religious divides in opposition to their autocratic governments. The figures that united the protestors were not political leaders but ordinary people who had suffered at the hands of the authoritarian systems. In Tunisia, this figure was Mohammed Bouazizi, a street vendor frustrated by police harassment and humiliation who set himself on fire in protest on 17 December 2010 and later died of his injuries. In Egypt, momentum for the protests was nurtured in part by a movement called 'We are all Khaled Said', dedicated to a young Egyptian who had died in suspicious circumstances in police custody in June 2010.

8.  Although there were some differences in emphasis, all of the evidence we received agreed that protests were spurred by a potent combination of economic, social, and political grievances that created "fertile grounds for dissent" and united disparate groups in opposition to their autocratic systems. Our witnesses described chronic economic underperformance across the region, drawing particular attention to unemployment—especially youth unemployment—which averaged 20% across the region and reached 30% in Libya in 2011; poverty; widening inequality; rising food prices; and increasingly visible evidence of corruption and the enrichment of elites. The food riots that took place in the region in 2008 also contributed, demonstrating existing discontent, as well as the people's ability to protest. Witnesses also highlighted a huge and unsustainable demographic expansion that had seen the population of the region double since 1980 with 60% of that population under 25 years old, which exacerbated the existing problems produced by economic mismanagement. Several of our witnesses considered these growing economic problems to be the main driving factor behind the outbreak of the revolutions.[5]

9.  The social and political causes of the Arab Spring included resentment of authoritarian rulers that had denied freedom of expression and limited opportunities for participation in civil and political life; long-standing 'emergency laws'; a malfunctioning or absent justice system; and a repressive security state apparatus that was responsible for myriad human rights abuses, including torture and killings.[6] This was particularly true in Libya, where public hangings and instances of collective punishment loomed large in recent memory.[7] A number of our witnesses were also struck by a desire to re-assert individual and national pride that characterised the protests.[8] Bell Pottinger Public Advocacy and Dr Claire Spencer, Head of the MENA programme at Chatham House, both spoke of a feeling of a lack of dignity or an insult to one's dignity that spurred individual participation in the protests.[9] The Middle East Monitor (MEMO), a media research organisation, saw this on a national scale, speaking of "a visceral sense of national humiliation and lack of self-esteem", stating that "In Egypt, a popular slogan was written and chanted everywhere: 'Raise your head, you're an Egyptian.'" [10]

10.  Social media has been widely recognised in media commentary as an important platform during the uprisings for the expression of dissent and to organise and connect protest movements. The BBC World Service noted in its evidence that "the use of social media by demonstrators played a pivotal role in developments", although Intissar Kherigi considered that social media was "just an enabling factor" that highlighted underlying problems.[11] Globalisation, as well as a greater ease of travel, was also highlighted as a contributory factor, [12] as frustrated young people became "acutely aware" of their relative deprivation and understood there existed alternatives to the repressive governments under which they lived. [13]

Could the FCO have anticipated the Arab Spring?


11.  The underlying frustrations that contributed to the outbreak of the Arab Spring were evidently well known before the uprisings. Many of the factors listed above had been recognized in successive United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) reports on Arab Human Development from 2002 onwards. However, almost all of those who provided evidence to the Committee agreed that the scale and success of the protests took most people by surprise, including close observers of the region and even those who participated in the uprisings.[14] The FCO argued that:

While we were aware of the fundamental underlying frustrations of people in the region, and were orientating our policies to address them, we did not predict that a spark in Tunisia in December 2010 would trigger such an outpouring of protest. No other international player, academic analyst, or opposition group within the region foresaw this either.[15]

12.  It is true that none of our witnesses claimed to have predicted that revolutions would occur either in the manner or at the precise time that they did. A number of witnesses also agreed that the FCO was well aware of the problems in the region. Dr Claire Spencer stated that the Foreign Office "certainly knew" about them, and Dr Eugene Rogan, Director of the Middle East Centre at St Anthony's College, University of Oxford, argued that Ambassadors displayed a "depth of knowledge that comes with a long history of engagement with the region", and that: "I think it is asking too much of diplomatic officials to be able to predict with [a] degree of precision [when uprisings would occur]."[16]

13.  However, some of the same witnesses identified particular factors that they believed ought to have warned observers of an imminent outburst. Dr Eugene Rogan suggested that the loyalty of the military to the governments in Egypt and Tunisia could have been monitored more closely.[17] A number of witnesses noted that the growing inequality and corruption was becoming very visible in the time leading up to the revolutions, with a construction boom and "more flagrant displays of wealth" in Tunisia, for example.[18] Dr Rogan considered that the growing inequality "should have alerted people across the region to the risk of revolution".[19]


Information gathering

14.  Some evidence questioned the FCO's methods of information gathering, including criticism of the FCO for failing to consult more widely. Dr Rooney suggested that the FCO should have consulted with "articulate" members of the public (such as intellectuals and writers) to understand better the societies in which they worked;[20] while Christian Aid suggested that FCO staff should have prioritised travel to areas outside Cairo, and should have engaged with more civil society organisations to deepen their analysis of the region.[21] Lord Malloch-Brown was particularly critical, noting that:

Whereas the world of Whitehall was fairly blind to the imminence of change, if you talked to civil society types in Egypt in 2010, they were telling you that things were getting close to blowing point, and it was the same with good, astute investigative journalists.[22]

15.   These criticisms are not new. In our 2011 report on The Role of the FCO in UK Government, we noted that a number of witnesses argued that the FCO needed to improve its skills in "basic diplomatic technique", and reflected on the recommendations of the FCO's internal report on its failure to foresee the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. The FCO's report listed various requirements for UK posts in countries where important UK interests would be at risk in the event of political upheaval, including the recommendation that posts should have at least one officer working full-time on internal political affairs, knowing the local language, ideally with previous experience of the country, and with time to travel outside the capital.[23]

16.  In its written submission the FCO robustly defended its approach, stating that:

In any regime where people are not free to express their concerns or opposition to the policies of their governments, there is a risk of frustrations bursting out suddenly and with potentially dramatic consequences. No amount of intelligence effort or further consultation with oppositionists or youth groups could have forewarned us or others of the actual outcome.[24]

Staff numbers and expertise

17.  Lord Malloch-Brown also said that the UK had lost its previous Arabist "touch and feel" for the region, and criticised the diminished staff resources in post, stating that: "although the British Ambassadors I met in the region were still of a very high calibre, they had much smaller political teams per country than in the past. In that sense, it is correct to say that they could not dig down deep enough".[25]

18.  We have previously mentioned the reduction in the number of FCO staff and resources. Our 2011 report on FCO Performance and Finances noted that the 10% cut to the FCO's core budget came on top of previous budget cuts which our predecessor Committee had considered a threat to the FCO's effectiveness. In our 2011 report, we commented:

We conclude that reductions in spending on the FCO, if they result in shortfalls in skilled personnel and technical support in key countries and regions, can have a serious effect in terms of the UK's relations with foreign countries, out of all proportion to the money involved, especially in relation to the UK's security and that of its Overseas Territories.[26]

19.  It is not reasonable to expect diplomats to have predicted the advent of the uprisings with precision. Successful uprisings are, by their very nature, somewhat unpredictable. However, it is concerning that the UK appears to have been taken so completely by surprise and little comfort that other states suffered the same problems. In its response to this report, the FCO should respond to criticisms that it did not have a sufficiently broad base of contacts from different social groups and geographical regions from which to draw information about approaching crises and set out what steps it is taking to improve its ability to anticipate such events in the future.

20.  We conclude that the decline in staff numbers in post in the MENA region may have contributed to a lower information gathering capacity but it cannot be conclusively drawn that such a decline had affected the FCO's ability to predict the Arab Spring uprisings. Nevertheless, 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.

Did the FCO have the necessary skills and knowledge to respond to the Arab Spring?

21.  Without claiming that they were in direct anticipation of the Arab Spring, in its written submission the FCO highlighted various programmes established in 2009-10 that enabled it to respond better to the events as they occurred. Most notably, in late 2009 the Middle East and North Africa Division (MENAD) commissioned the FCO's strategy unit to examine whether 'Arab Human Development' should be an FCO policy priority. It concluded in 2010, making a number of recommendations for a more strategic approach toward human development in the region. The Foreign Secretary approved the creation of a four-person Arab Human Development team in MENAD in summer 2010 and a £5 million fund for the programme at the end of 2010. This team was later re-named the Arab Partnership Initiative and went on to form a key part of the FCO's response to the Arab Spring. However, by the time that uprisings had broken out in Tunisia in December 2010, only the team leader was in place; the three other staff posts were filled in January 2011.[27]

22.  The FCO claims that this policy work "placed the UK in a strong position to respond strategically and rapidly to the Arab Spring, both bilaterally (including with strategic partners such as the British Council) and through the multilateral mechanisms of the EU and G8".[28] Christian Aid was more sceptical about the FCO's long-standing commitment to addressing the region's problems, stating that its creation of the Arab Partnership Initiative before the revolutions, although welcome, was "a rather isolated case of the FCO making efforts to engage in addressing long term issues of poor governance and accountability in the region".[29]

23.  The FCO also highlighted certain communications programmes it had established that proved effective during the Arab Spring, including 'Partners for Progress'—a communications programme which focused on the FCO's internet presence and ensured that each embassy in the region had a website in both English and Arabic, and developed the use of Facebook, Twitter and Ambassadors' blogs. The FCO cited comments by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's Advisor for Innovation, Ben Scott, in support of its efforts. He reportedly described how "when the Arab Spring broke, and the role of social media came into focus, we had to pedal very hard just to get close to where the Brits were".[30]


24.  We have already placed on record our concern at evidence that the FCO's specialist geographical expertise, including knowledge of foreign languages, has weakened. During this Committee's inquiry into The role of the FCO in UK Government, Sir Oliver Miles, a former British diplomat, told the Committee that:

By the time I retired from the service in 1996 I felt (and I said as much to the then head of the Diplomatic Service) that we had compromised our traditional position of strength by allowing deep understanding of the world outside Britain to be sacrificed in favour of peripheral objectives. A symbol and more than a symbol of this is the fact that in the region I know best, the Arab world, too many key positions at home and abroad are now occupied by non-Arabic speakers. This is sometimes unavoidable, but it is nonetheless deplorable.[31]

Lord Malloch-Brown voiced similar concerns during this inquiry, asserting that: "Whatever they tell you, Foreign Office languages are in crisis. […] Even with a mainstream language such as Arabic, the cutbacks that have occurred are key."[32]

25.  In response to questions about the MENAD's resources and expertise, MENAD Director Dr Christian Turner told us that just prior to the outbreak of the Arab Spring, in November 2010, the FCO had launched a "MENA Cadre" initiative, a key part of which is a renewed effort on language skills. As part of this programme the FCO would:

a)  restore the length of training for Full Time Arabic Training to 18 months;

b)  provide more opportunities and encouragement to staff in London to learn and maintain foreign languages, with weekly conversation classes for existing Arabic speakers, a 12-month beginners Arabic class (to which over 60 FCO staff have subscribed), and French classes, and

c)  re-classify approximately 20 existing jobs at MENA Posts overseas as speaker slots, i.e. posts which have a language requirement. The FCO told us that once trained staff were in place, this would represent an approximate 40% increase in Arabic speaker capacity in the network compared to 2010 levels.[33]

The MENA Cadre initiative would also seek to enhance expertise by hosting in-house seminars and roundtables with outside experts, including think tanks and retired Diplomatic Service staff.[34] Dr Turner reported that there were now approximately 70 speaker slots in the overseas MENA network (out of over 155 UK-based staff). In MENAD in London, there are "over 30" officers who speak Arabic, Farsi or French to operational standard[35] (about a quarter of the directorate), but the FCO provided no further breakdown as to which of those 30 members of staff speak which of the three languages specified. [36] We conclude that the work done by the FCO in its Middle East and North Africa Directorate in 2010 to improve Arabic language skills and to revise its strategic approach showed some foresight and demonstrates that the Department had recognised the need for improvement. However, the fact that the Department considered it necessary to plan a 40% increase in the FCO's Arabic speakers implicitly acknowledges that it had significantly degraded its language capacity by 2010. At the outbreak of the Arab Spring these programmes had yet to have a demonstrable impact in raising language skills or significantly changing the Department's approach.

5   Q 4 [Intissar Kherigi], Q 24 [Eugene Rogan], Q 103 [Lord Malloch-Brown] Back

6   See Ev 147 [Christian Aid], Ev 155-156 [Redress Trust], Ev 164-165 and Ev211-212 [Amnesty International] Back

7   Ev 107 Back

8   See, for example, Ev 174. Back

9   Q 40 and Ev 207 Back

10   Ev 174 Back

11   Ev 217 and Q 4. See also Ev 142 [Professor Caroline Rooney]. The FCO also considered that the growth of social media in the last two years was a "striking phenomenon", see Ev 68. Back

12   Ev 206 and Q 103  Back

13   Ev 207 Back

14   See, for example, Q 4 and Ev 174 [Middle East Monitor]. Back

15   Ev 61 Back

16   See Q 32 and Q 25 Back

17   Q 25 Back

18   Q 41 Back

19   Q 24 Back

20   Ev 142 and Ev 143 Back

21   Ev 147 Back

22   Q 117 Back

23   Foreign Affairs Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2010-12, The Role of the FCO in UK Government, HC 665, para 180 Back

24   Ev 67 Back

25   Q 106 Back

26   Foreign Affairs Committee, Third Report of Session 2010-11, FCO Performance and Finances, HC 572, para 25 Back

27   Ev 126 Back

28   Ev 61 Back

29   Ev 147 Back

30   Ev 68 Back

31   Foreign Affairs Committee, The Role of the FCO in UK Government, Ev w47 Back

32   Q 121 Back

33   Ev 58 Back

34   Ev 58 Back

35   FCO language exams are aligned to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). The FCO operational exam is equivalent to CEFR level C1. Back

36   Ev 58 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 19 July 2012