Andrew Mitchell: Why the Arab Spring matters for Britain and beyond

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Andrew Mitchell's speech at Chatham House looked at why the UK is supporting the rise of democracy in the region, 12 September 2011.

Watch the video on YouTube or read the transcript of the speech below:

Why the Arab Spring matters for Britain and beyond  

Full transcript

This afternoon, I want to focus on three themes.

Firstly, why what is happening in North Africa and the Middle East today matters to us here in Britain, why this is a singular moment in history and why our response - and that of the international community - is so important.

Secondly, and more specifically, why the Coalition Government is right to be supporting the people of Libya in their quest for democracy.

And thirdly, I want to suggest some of the challenges that face the wider Arab world as it breaks free from the oppression that has been a way of life for so many of its people - and to outline some of the ways in which Britain can support this crucial transition.

Why does Arab Spring matter for Britain and the wider world?

So, first, the context. Why are we taking an interest? What does the Arab Spring mean for the wider world?

I don’t need to tell this particular audience that the events we have witnessed this year, in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere, have been truly momentous. Democracy is taking hold across the region. People who, for generations have been starved of freedom and a fair way of life are suddenly finding a voice.

They are rewriting their future. And it is a future that is no longer predicated on the stark choice of repression or extremism.

We can and should celebrate this incredible moment. We ourselves may have enjoyed the privilege of democracy for many centuries but that privilege was not earned without a struggle.  We know that governance without the mandate of the people is no governance at all.

It has taken us many years to get to where we are, to put in place the freedoms, the rights and responsibilities that are the crucial foundations of a fair society.  But we have got there. Not for nothing did John Bright describe ours as the mother of all Parliaments. But the fact that we have history on our side does not make us an expert in governance in Egypt or Libya or in any other country beyond our shores.

No, it is not for us or any other government to tell those countries the particular route they should take to secure the hopes and aspirations of their people.  Nor could we if we wanted to Just as there is no one recipe for economic growth neither is there any one single recipe for political emancipation.

People across the Arab region may have found a voice but it is up to them how they make themselves heard. They and they alone must find a way to participate in the governance of their countries and to develop the systems and institutions which will create functioning and democratic states.

But that does not mean that we cannot help them in this process.  Indeed, such a course of action is both morally right and in our national interest.

It’s morally right because as a country whose values are firmly rooted in the basic principles of freedom, fairness and equality we have a duty to help those who share those beliefs but who are struggling to give them life. 

And it’s in our national interest too.

It’s in our national interest, first, because our own economy depends in part on our trade with these countries.  British exports totalled nearly £25 billion last year, and Gulf countries are amongst our biggest investors.

Secondly, it’s in our interests because instability in the Middle East and the Gulf affects gas and oil prices here, hurting British business and British people. 

And finally, it’s in our interests because this region matters in terms of security. As the Deputy Prime Minister has said, there is a greater risk of an Al Qaeda attack being planned and carried out from Yemen right now than there is from Afghanistan. A sobering thought on this, the day after the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

Britain is well-placed to help. Not just by providing conventional aid, although in the immediate aftermath of revolution there is a genuine need for humanitarian support, but also by applying other levers. By engaging politically, by advocating freer trade, by providing the technical assistance that is so vital . By working closely and productively across Whitehall, as the Foreign Secretary, Defence Secretary and I already do.

Be under no illusion, this is a seminal moment in history and we must help the Arab world to seize it.  Future generations will not look back and say Britain was found wanting.



Let me now turn to Libya, a country whose people, along with those in the Horn of Africa, have been at the forefront of our thoughts in recent months.

The people of Libya have shown immense strength, determination and dignity in reclaiming their country and their destiny for themselves and their children.

For those of us who take for granted the trappings of freedom: the ballot box or the courts or a functioning police service, the sight of young men and women gathering in their thousands on the streets of Tripoli following the downfall of Qadafi was humbling. The credit for that victory belongs to them and them alone.

And just as it was right that they succeeded in achieving that victory, it was right that Britain and the international community did what we could to help. It was right because we could not stand by and watch as Qadafi prepared to slaughter his own people. Right because we share the values the Libyan people are seeking. And yes, right because we could not afford to let a failed state on Europe’s southern border threaten our own security.

But there is still more to do. Not because Libya is a poor country that needs our financial help. It isn’t and it doesn’t. It’s rich in human and natural resources: with a population of 6 and a half million people and proven oil reserves that are the ninth largest in the world. 

So, Libya is more than capable of building its own future. And it is already beginning to do so. The new authorities have produced a far-reaching roadmap and constitutional declaration that sets out a clear vision for a new democracy. It is planning for a new constitution and elections within 20 months. 

But this is just the beginning of a very long road. The role of the international community is to support Libya as it makes that journey - while never forgetting that support in the absence of reform is ultimately in no-one’s interests at all.

We’ve played a leading role in the humanitarian effort, focussing, in particular, on the four key areas of: health, water and food.  Through our recent support to the International Committee of the Red Cross, we are helping to:

  • provide additional food supplies for nearly 700,000 people and;
  • through the International Committee of the Red Cross we are providing surgical teams to treat up to 5,000 war-wounded patients

Of course, challenges remain and undoubtedly, new ones will arise. Britain will continue to play its part under the leadership of the NTC working alongside the UN Humanitarian Co-ordinator Lady Amos and other humanitarian agencies.

We are also working in partnership with the NTC and the UN as Libya’s people adapt to political and economic change and lay the foundations of a functioning democracy. The NTC has clear plans which set out the steps needed to bring about a stable, secure Libya.  We stand ready to respond to requests for assistance to support a Libyan-led transition and are already doing so in the area of policing. We will continue to work with the UN and others to ensure a timely, co-ordinated international response.

Ultimately, however, Libya’s future lies in Libya’s hands. Its people have succeeded in taking power away from Qadafi, now the NTC must find a way of putting that power into the hands of the people so that it can be exercised for the good of all.

Wider region

I want now to turn to the wider region. What happened in Egypt and Tunisia and of course, Libya, earlier this year, brings hope across the whole of North Africa and the Middle East. And in Jordan and Morocco whose people have spoken with a quieter voice but with equal clarity, there have been subtle but no less important moves toward reform.

Reform, however, doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time. And that in itself isn’t easy. When the momentum of revolution fades, those who seek lasting change have to deal in the currency of processes, procedures and systems.  The challenges are many and varied. Its these challenges that I now want to explore.


First, economic stability. Across North Africa and the Middle East there is a tremendous opportunity to move beyond the old state-controlled economic systems of the region which so patently failed to deliver for ordinary people.  But at the same time we have to avoid replicating the chaos that befell countries like Russia in the aftermath of the Cold War.

The transition has to be managed and managed carefully. Part of the solution lies in fixing the global economy. In getting the right conditions for macro economic stability, for secure public finances and strong growth policies. This is perhaps the biggest and most compelling challenge of all.

Secondly, governments are not born with the trust of their people. They have to earn it. Democracy and accountability are essential. When people have a voice they have a stake in their future. They may not always like what’s being done but they know they can do something about it at the ballot box.

Transparency is crucial as well. People need to be able to see where and how their money is being spent.  Although many of the countries in the region are rich in resources, the revenue has not always been fairly distributed. That’s why, for example, we’ve been encouraging the NTC in Libya to sign up to the Extractives Industries Transparency Initiative in respect of its oil revenues.

Thirdly, after years of being ruled by fear rather than law corruption and cronyism in the private sector have become rife. This has to be addressed. Business has an immense potential to play a part in the future of this region but unless investors feel confident to engage and unless the benefits of economic growth are shared equitably, lasting reform will remain a noble aspiration.

Finally, there is a crying need for more jobs - especially for young people - across the Southern Mediterranean countries.  Two thirds of the region are under 24 years old. They are better educated than their parents, healthier and more connected to the global economy. They have legitimate expectations and those expectations are not being met.

Frustration and futility are powerful catalysts. Why else was it the voice of disaffected young people that was the first to be heard on the streets of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya? They have grown up in a world where they have seen others living lives of opportunity and choice and they want that for themselves.  Long-term reform must then, factor in the needs of the young, and in particular, their need for employment.

Britain’s response

So, if these are the challenges, what are we, here in Britain doing to help?

We’re focussing our efforts on participation: political participation and economic participation.

And we’re doing this in three different ways.

First, through the Deauville Partnership. This partnership as many of you will know, was initially set up by the G8 earlier this year and now includes countries such as Turkey, Kuwait and the UAE. And it’s working. This weekend the international multilateral banks, including those from the region, made the important commitment to double the amount they are offering to £25 billion to support the plans for building inclusive growth and democracy in the region. 

The Chancellor and I have strong expectations that the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development will play an important role in this process,  along the lines of that which it played in supporting the former Soviet Union countries. 

Secondly, at EU level we’re pushing for reform of the European Neighbourhood Policy. Britain has already led the call for better market access for reforming countries. Now, we want to see a revised Neighbourhood Policy that will lead to deeper economic integration across the region.

The third arm of our response is being spearheaded by a new and expanded UK Arab Partnership. We want this partnership to promote economic growth and strengthen political participation across the region.  To help it achieve these goals we’ve set up a dedicated Partnership Fund.  It is already producing encouraging results in terms of broadening political participation.

I give you just three examples:

  • In Tunisia, a new BBC World Service Trust is helping the state broadcaster to become independent
  • In Egypt, an NGO is preparing women to stand in elections and use social media to debate issues
  • And in Cairo none other than Chatham House is running pre-election debates on subjects of political and economic significance

On the economic front, the new fund will help countries to develop and diversify their economies.

The sort of areas we envisage supporting are:

First, boosting entrepreneurship, for example, by working with the African Development Bank in Tunisia to provide young entrepreneurs with seed funding, mentoring and a platform for sharing ideas.

Secondly, tackling unemployment, by working with the Islamic Development Bank to give young people across the region the skills they need for the workplace.

Thirdly, working with the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the International Finance Corporation in Egypt to help provide the business services - marketing, financial management and export skills - that are so badly needed. Or by working with the same partners in Egypt and Tunisia to help banks and lenders to provide the financial services that are so vital for micros and SMEs.

And finally, we’re providing crucial international leadership by making sure that the IMF, the World Bank and the UN work in partnership with countries across the region to deliver the reform that will stand the test of time.  I particularly welcome the International Monetary Fund’s recognition of Libya’s National Transitional Council as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people.


Conclusion and prospects for the future

Ladies and Gentlemen, the changes that have taken place across North Africa and the Middle East are historic. Historic not just for the people of those countries but for us here in Britain. Our own peace and prosperity are linked to the stability of those countries that are in transition.
These people have shown that if you believe in something strongly enough you can achieve change even in the most hostile of environments. This is something from which we can all take heart.

Yes, the situation is fluid and fast-moving and it would be foolish to suggest we can be certain what will happen in individual countries. Syria looks increasingly fragile. We will have to deal with the reality of engaging with new political movements, including Islamic-based parties and we must be ready to tailor our response to specific circumstances.

But above all, this is a moment for optimism and hope. Men and women in our time are writing a new chapter in their history. We here in Britain applaud them. We are proud to be part of their story.