Decades, like centuries, never fall as neatly as we might like. The 19th century spilt over into the 20th until the final glorious summer of 1914. The Roaring twenties didn’t last out their own decade before crashing in Manhattan. But the decade we have just been through does have an odd kind of order to it, and although it is a little early to write the history of 2010-2020 anyone tempted to do so would start with a man in a Tunisian market trader setting himself on fire.
The self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi appeared to have been provoked by the vegetable and apple-cart trader’s humiliation by officials in Tunis. Though some of the details are disputed, the 26-year-old clearly came up against the sclerotic implacability which dogged the economic opportunities of people like him in Tunisia under its then leader, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
The wounds he suffered at his own hands on 17 December 2010 led to Bouazizi being hospitalised, but he died a fortnight later. By then wider Tunisian society was in revolt. The humiliations which had led Bouazizi to his extreme act were clearly shared by large numbers of his fellow countrymen. As anyone who knows North Africa can attest, such frustrations are almost inevitable in societies where achieving the most basic of things requires a labyrinthine process demanding the patience of a prophet, if not a saint.
As the protests in Tunisia grew so they were replicated across the rest of North Africa and eventually across the Middle East. The Ben Ali government was eventually overthrown, giving huge impetus to the populations of other countries keen to get rid of their own corrupt, inefficient and previously apparently immovable leaders.
Next door in Libya the uprising of a portion of the population against Colonel Gaddafi was met with predictable brutality by the dictator. Expecting a massacre of Gaddafi’s opponents in Benghazi an alliance of outside powers – including the UK and France — were persuaded to intervene. The result was Gaddafi’s rule ending in rather bloodier circumstances than Ben Ali, the sinking of Libya into civil war and the breaking of decades of uncomfortable compromise agreements with the regime; sordid agreements which had largely prevented illegal migration flows from the Libyan coastline across the Mediterranean to the soft underbelly of Europe.
Over in Syria anti-government protests picked up their own momentum. Outspoken opposition to the Assad regime was supressed with a brutality which Gaddafi would have admired, and here the protests soon splintered and the country descended swiftly into civil war. One of the actors that stepped into the resulting vacuum was the Islamist group ISIS, who declared a caliphate across a huge portion of Syria and northern Iraq. Soon people were fleeing the country by the millions, to refugee camps in neighbouring Jordan and Turkey, but also for the more desirable destination of Europe.
Today you can still hear some people claiming that European intervention in some way caused the migrant crisis of the mid-2010s (a subject which is one focus of my 2017 book The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam). But this is a simplistic and Western-centric interpretation of events. True, the intervention of the Western powers in Libya tilted the balance of force in the conflict against Gaddafi. But until the rise of ISIS (when they had very specific business to attend to) the Western powers — notably the United States — played a distinctly hands-off role in the civil war in Syria: a war which has to date claimed the lives of as many as half a million people.
So the view that Western meddling in the region somehow caused the migration crisis is a selective interpretation of events. The intervention in Libya, and the now traditional inability of the interventionists to unify and secure the country in the period immediately after military action, undoubtedly made the Libyan coastline a hive for people smugglers to begin successfully practising their trade in human beings.
But the non-intervention in Syria ensured that when that tragic country fell apart the people had no safe havens from the evils of Assad and the Islamic State, and millions understandably fled. Once that movement began and European leaders started to relax their border and asylum policies, people from a bewildering number of other countries joined in the movement. Soon the Syrian refugee crisis became a Middle East, central Asian, North and sub-Saharan African refugee crisis.
By the middle of the decade, five years after Bouazizi had set himself on fire in Tunis, there were new regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, almost no governance in Libya, and a regime fighting to their last benighted subject to stay in power in Syria. Across the rest of the region, from Morocco to Bahrain, governments that wished to survive had to make accommodations or perpetrate actions which in any usual season would have seen them condemned forcefully. But in a time of flux, as the Arab Spring became the Arab Winter — and as the warning of Syria stared at the world every day — all status quo arrangements in such countries took on a patina of appeal they had not enjoyed in decades.
The political instability did, however, move north, where the arrival of migrants primarily into Italy and Greece caused a political panic of a kind not seen in Europe this century. States like Germany and Sweden, which positively welcomed in the new arrivals by the hundreds of thousands if not millions, soon struggled to cope with the consequences of their own policy of invitation.
Neighbouring countries like Denmark and Hungary, which had not asked for these huge numbers of people to walk into — or over — their territory, started to look like they were going in a different political direction entirely. Fault lines began to grow not only in the Middle East and North Africa, but in Europe, too.
Some states, especially in central and eastern Europe, objected to being expected to pick up the human or financial costs of a policy decided in Berlin and Brussels. On the European shores of the Mediterranean a sullenness grew, borne out of a perfectly reasonable aggravation that the northern European states were advocating policies which on a financial and humanitarian level their southern neighbours were left struggling to cope with.
After all, nobody arrived directly into Germany from the Middle East. They arrived into Mediterranean countries which were already struggling through the fiscal restraints imposed upon them in the wake of the eurozone crises. Countries with stagnant economies were now being asked to welcome in the world’s poor as well as dispossessed. And nobody seemed to know whether — if ever — there would be an end to the policy.
To the farthest side of Europe from the places where the migrants were arriving, the British public saw all this at an important juncture, just as they were being asked to decide whether or not to remain a part of the European Union. When the public voted to leave in 2016 they were propelled by a large number of long-simmering reasons, but one of the final propulsions was the sight of a Europe awash with the consequences of border policies unilaterally announced from Berlin and complained about almost everywhere else. One-by-one the countries of the EU instituted their own border policies and in June 2016 the British public used the ballot box to declare a new one of their own.
But further away still from the seat of the crisis, the Arab spring and the rise of ISIS would arguably help to bring about an even greater seismic event in the world’s greatest power; with massacres in Paris and elsewhere in 2015, American voters turned to a candidate who appeared more suited to a dangerous world.
Today the splits exposed in 2015 have grown ever greater. Only recently, Hungary and Poland resisted a new emergency budget until it became clear that their countries would not have their refugee policy dictated by Brussels. After a terrorist attack in Austria in October the German and Austrian chancellors were once again in public contestation over migrant quotas thought up in Berlin. One event was a reminder that 2015 would not be forgotten; another a reminder that Europe is never more than a few atrocities away from the political bands breaking again.
It is far too early to say what any of this means. The 2010s began with pundits trying to work out what the Arab Spring was. Was it the region’s 1848? Its 1914? Its 1989? Was it one or all of these things? Who knows? What we do know — or should observe — is that the decade shows the impossibility of political predictions.
We are used to the metaphor of the butterfly flapping its wings. What we may still be uncomfortable with — and always should be — is the chain of causality that means that an upset apple-cart in a Tunisian market-place can cause not just governments to tremble, but governments far away — in democracies and dictatorships alike — to fall. It is magnificent for any historian to study. And humbling, if not terrifying, for anyone who believes that human affairs can be much predicted, let alone guided.