Deputy Prime Minister on the Arab Spring: The UK will continue to support the will of the people

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg spoke about the Arab Spring in a speech to the British Council in London.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Nick Clegg

Today I want to talk more broadly about the Arab Spring. But, before I do, I’d like to pause on the dramatic events in Libya overnight. The advances made by the Free Libya Forces in Tripoli would have been unthinkable just a few months ago. Unimaginable, even, for the generations of young Libyans who have never known a world without Qadhafi. Now, that world is within their reach. The momentum for change is breathtaking and, for the cynics who said change wasn’t possible, who had written off the Libyan uprising, written off the Arab Spring, clearly, they were wrong. The movement for freedom hasn’t been stamped out. It’s alive and kicking, and it’s here to stay.

So today I want to be absolutely clear: The UK stands shoulder to shoulder with the millions of citizens across the Arab world, who are looking to open up their societies, looking for a better life.

I want to start by taking stock of where we are. For many of these movements, the future is uncertain, but the Arab Spring is being driven by forces that will not go away: youth, technology, the need for economic reform. I then want to explain why supporting these movements is in the UK’s clear self-interest, because of our values, but also our prosperity and security too. Finally, I will set out the core elements of that support.

One: as events continue to unfold in Libya, we remain determined to help the Libyan people build a country that is safe, free and fair.

Two: we’re using our influence to help forge a new partnership between the international community and the region. One that is better at securing reform.

Three: we’re providing practical help to reforming states, as they put in place the building blocks for more open and inclusive societies.

So, what has become of the Arab Spring, nine months since it began? The answer depends on where you look. Tunisia and Egypt are tantalisingly close to new, democratically-elected governments. But, in both, there are immediate concerns about delivering elections in time and legitimate in the eyes of the people. Elsewhere in North Africa and the Gulf, we are witnessing more gradual change, at varying speeds. Time will tell whether it will meet people’s expectations. And, of course, the world continues to watch with hope as Free Libya Forces make important gains as Qadhafi’s fate closes in on him and the Libyan people find themselves on the cusp of freedom. But, it is also true that, in other places, developments are less encouraging. An urgent need for reform in Bahrain, for example. Stalemate in Yemen. And, in Syria, where a single family continues to wage war on an entire nation.

The UK welcomes the growing international condemnation of Assad’s regime. Yesterday we heard him wheel out the same, well-worn promises of reform. We take no reassurance from that. This is a man who has lied endlessly, broken his promises repeatedly, hurt his own people and now his time is up. Assad has burnt his bridges with the Turkish Government. Russia and China are less inclined to protect him at the UN. Arab countries have withdrawn their Ambassadors and made clear their horror at the bloodshed. The US and EU have called for his departure. And the UK is leading efforts to agree a new round of EU sanctions, targeting those at the top, those directing the violence, while minimising the impact on ordinary citizens.

We are clear: we want the violence to stop. Prisoners of conscience to be released. The UN to have complete freedom to assess the humanitarian situation. And, for the sake of the Syrian people, it’s time for Assad to go. He is as irrelevant to Syria’s future as Qadhafi is to Libya’s.

So the picture is very mixed and there is uncertainty over where things will go next. Many similarities underpin the uprisings, but these societies differ enormously too. Their wealth, traditions, institutions. The role of faith in society, of sect, tribe, nationality. The priorities of their people. The resistance from their elites. Different states were always going to move at a different pace, and in different ways. Oppressive regimes were never going to tumble like dominoes. Nor were they going to change their ways overnight.

But, while we must temper optimism with realism, equally, we must be wary of those who preach a counsel of despair. The direction of travel is set. The fundamental forces driving these changes are here to stay. Youth. Technology. A lack of opportunity and inclusion. Factors which have collided to create citizens who want more, who know more, who aspire to more, but who are denied it at every turn. Time is on their side. They - you - will not give up.

First, consider the demographics. Young people ignited the Arab Spring. Traditional political groups only joined later on. We shouldn’t be surprised by that. Two thirds of the region’s population are under 24. They are better educated than their parents, healthier, more connected to the global community, more exposed to modern consumerism, and, with it, a sense of personal choice. They know they have a right to be heard. They know they deserve jobs and opportunities. And - most importantly - they now know that change is possible.

Just as the reformers of my generation were driven by historic scenes of the Berlin Wall coming down, these young men and women will never forget those images of triumph in Tahrir Square. Or, now, the pictures of Libyans coming together in Maydan Al Shuhadaa in Tripoli, renamed by the Libyan people last night. The genie is out of the bottle. Eventually, one way or another, their governments will have to make space for their demands.

Another driver is, of course, technology. A lot of ink has been spilt on the role of the internet in helping protesters mobilise, I don’t need to repeat that here. But it is worth remembering that it wasn’t just new media that facilitated these events. Television was also hugely important. Rolling, 24-hour news creates a kind of real-time empathy between people, a sense of solidarity between individuals and communities, even when they are thousands of miles apart. Encouraging a fearlessness among protesters that should give all oppressive regimes cause for concern.

Then there’s economic grievance. Gallup has done some extremely useful research on this, which we will hear more about later. Put simply, many citizens in Arab countries are frustrated at the limited economic opportunities open to them. The region’s economies have grown well - often at 5 or 6 per cent a year. But huge swathes of the population have been excluded from the benefits of growth. Unemployment is high - up to 25 per cent among young people. Wages are low and living costs are on the rise.

There is also a problem of underemployment, where individuals are unable to capitalise on their skills and talents because workplaces are dominated by patronage and nepotism. Add to that indignation at crony capitalism, the sight of elites rampantly enriching themselves while they simultaneously squander the nation’s assets and the result is a deep-rooted sense of injustice.

The only way to diffuse that sense of injustice is by improving people’s material circumstances - helping these economies reach their potential, ensuring they generate growth for all. But the only way to do that is through economic and political reform. Changes to governances; policies to boost private enterprise; education reform, so there is more vocational training; more focus on the skills needed in the modern jobs market; trade liberalisation, opening up trade within the region, where integration is low, as well as outside of it.

These are the steps to enduring prosperity and stability. Mubarak didn’t understand that. Nor did Ben Ali. And nor do Qadhafi or Assad. And, if we are honest, the UK hasn’t always got this right. We attended to these autocrats in the name of stability, accepting their corruption and economic mismanagement as its necessary price and satisfying ourselves with false promises and cosmetic reform. We have learnt from those mistakes. There can be no lasting peace, no long-term success, without fundamental reform.

Why, then, does any of this matter to the UK?

First and foremost, because we believe in the same things these activists are fighting for: freedom, self-determination, human rights, the chance for people who work hard to succeed. Those are the values of the open society, where power is dispersed, government is representative, opportunity is shared. Values which are sometimes referred to as “Western values”, which is historically inaccurate, for a start. While much of Europe had still to emerge from the Dark Ages, it was the Baghdad of Haroun al-Rashid that saw a flowering of free religious debate and an openness to learning from non-Muslim sources. This year has proved that so-called Western values, free speech, the rule of law, pluralism, are the aspirations of people everywhere.

The UK stands by all who strive for them.

But - and I make no apology for the self-interest here - we also care because stability and prosperity over there feed directly into jobs and security over here. Right now, there are over 150,000 British citizens living and working in North Africa and the Middle East and thousands of British companies operating there. We exported around £24.5 billion worth of goods and services to the region last year alone, more than to India and China combined. Even when you take out the Gulf States, trade with the rest of the region is strong and growing. So this is an extremely important market for us particularly when we are getting our own economy back on track.

The global economy is still very much governed by the price of oil. These states hold 59% of the world’s reserves, along with 36% of production. Even a small risk of disruption to that supply can spook the markets, pushing up the price of oil and creating a headwind for global economic growth. That’s exactly what happened after the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, when oil prices hit a near-record high.

The Arab Spring also matters to us in terms of our security. We know that terrorists thrive on lawlessness and instability, many people might be surprised to hear that, right now, there is more chance of an Al Qaeda attack being planned and carried out from Yemen than Afghanistan. Because of continuing political deadlock, Yemen, already the poorest country in the region is being pushed deeper into state failure, deeper into humanitarian crisis, creating a breeding ground for extremists who pose a threat to our safety. That situation cannot be allowed to continue - not in Yemen or anywhere else.

On security more broadly, North African and Middle Eastern states are also essential to preventing Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons or meddling in its neighbours affairs. And to finding a lasting, two-state solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict, the importance of which has been underlined by events over recent days. The peace process is already extremely fragile. Continuing unrest in the Arab world only adds to that.

So the UK has every reason to support the Arab Spring. We’re doing so in three key ways. One, supporting Libya as it moves to a stable, prosperous future. Two, using our influence to create a new international partnership with the region better at encouraging reform. Three, by providing practical help to nations in transition.

The decision to support military intervention in Libya was not one the UK took lightly. Particularly not by those of us who opposed the invasion of Iraq, but, working with the international community to implement UN resolutions 1970 and 1973 was, and remains, necessary, legal and right. We went to Libya with a clear humanitarian mandate and tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of lives have been saved since. But, we also knew that inaction would have threatened the Arab Spring as a whole.

In those early months, had Qadhafi been allowed to massacre protesters in Benghazi, what message would that have sent to protesters in Manama? Sanaa? Damascus? And, today, as the Colonel’s regime crumbles around him, as the people of Libya fight to take back their country, what message does that send to other dictators who ignore their people’s demands?

Clearly the situation in Libya is changing by the moment. Today’s scenes should give heart to all of those struggling for their freedom. But - and this is where we learn the lesson from Iraq - Qadhafi’s departure will not be the end. It will be the beginning and we should not underestimate the challenges ahead.

The National Transition Council has articulated a vision for a strong, stable, post- Qadafi Libya, setting out a roadmap for the government of Libya from now until the first set of legislative elections. They have said the right things about protecting national institutions, security for all and an inclusive political process. And the UK, alongside the UN, will do everything we can to support that process, helping Libya draw a line under decades of repression, helping deliver peace and stability that last.

Two, a new partnership between the international community and the region. Inclusive and effective, built on give and take. Where we offer Arab states a better deal - the support they really need but we expect them to listen to their people in return. That is the smart way for the international community to pool its influence.

The G8 launched the Deauville Partnership earlier this year to support reform in the region and ensure international institutions are working together. Important regional players are fully involved: Turkey for example, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates. Their involvement and experiences will be indispensible in making this partnership work and Europe has to be smarter too. Europe has deep ties to its southern neighbours: a shared history, cultural bonds, trade and aid, but the EU needs to make more of those to encourage political and economic reform.

The UK has been very active in redesigning the EU’s Neighbourhood policy. The new policy will offer our neighbours substantial additional financial assistance - through aid and European Bank lending. But, more importantly, the EU has committed to actions that will allow for greater economic integration. The access to markets that we know can deliver jobs and opportunities, through trade concessions in the short term and free trade agreements in the long term. But - and this is crucial - this access to markets will depend on the ability to demonstrate clear progress on reform. Where progress cannot be demonstrated, support will be withdrawn.

Three, practical support for reforming nations. It is extremely important that transitions are as swift and as smooth as possible. Successful revolutions may change the world overnight. But, in many ways, it’s the morning after that the real work begins. So the UK is working with organisations like the British Council and Westminster Foundation for Democracy to support these communities with the nuts and bolts of transition in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere. Our Arab Partnership Fund will support a range of political projects, from assisting fledgling movements as they turn into organised political parties, to setting up parliamentary procedures for new legislatures, putting in place processes to prevent corruption, staffing projects to engage women and other marginalised groups, giving technical assistance to help replace state media monopolies with a plural press and helping register huge numbers of people who have never voted before.

On the economic front, we’re looking at schemes that support private sector growth, boost entrepreneurship, tackle youth unemployment, increase trade opportunities, stimulate public-private partnerships. All the areas we can offer the most help, and make the biggest difference. We’ve committed resources to this - £110m over the next four years with £20m now set aside specifically for Libya. And of course the UK, collectively with the EU, has committed an additional 1bn Euros to the region, with the European Investment Bank increasing its lending by a further billion on top of this.

Many of the programmes we are supporting are technical, bureaucratic, but don’t ever underestimate this stage of reform. This is when you lock in a revolution. This is when you turn the hopes and dreams of millions of citizens into the institutions and practices of a well-functioning state.

So, to sum up:

Across North Africa and the Middle East, the UK will continue to support the will of the people. We believe in their self-determination, we share their values. And we know that reform is the route to stability and prosperity there and that, in turn, helps jobs and security here.

The UK took a lead in mobilising international support for action to help secure change in Libya and we will continue to stand up for the aspirations of citizens across the Arab world. We are helping forge a new, more effective international partnership with the region and we will continue to provide practical help to states in transition.

We’ll need to keep our approach under continual review. The situation is fast-changing. But one thing I can say with certainty: to every citizen in this part of the world demanding greater freedom, to every young man and women in search of a better life, to every society determined to open itself up, the path to political freedom and economic opportunity is long, but you are on the right side of history. The UK stands with you.

Thank you.

Published 22 August 2011