Johnny West: Why the Arab spring has ages to go

SO THE Arab spring has turned into the Arab summer.

And that initial wave of euphoria at people power toppling grotesque autocrats in the twinkling of an eye in Egypt and Tunisia has turned into apprehension and concern as Libya and Syria teeter on the brink of … well, we're not quite sure. But too much blood has already been spilt.

When what was suddenly made simple has become complex again, and uncertain, it's tempting to fall back on those safe old clichs about the Middle East.

That it's a region bound by history, blinded by faith and gagged by special forces snipers. It's tribal and Byzantine. Opaque, full of unseen hands and vested interests. Above all, feel-bad - again. For a brief moment, it felt like joy was in the mix, but now it seems as if it's reverted to type. Endless suffering. Swathes of unreason. Some of the good guys beginning to look like they've got skeletons in the cupboard, or at least their heads in the clouds. And some of those vested interests uncomfortably close to home - as in the nearest petrol station.

But don't be fooled by all that. It is true that the snipers are staking out rooftops daily, in the suburbs and bustling centre of Damascus. They are men who can shoot dead unarmed protesters from a distance, go home to ruffle their children's hair, eat a hearty supper and come back the next day for more - because you just know some of them are keeping their own tally. Thousands have been killed since Mohammed Bouazizi set light to himself last December in the southern Tunisian town of Sidi Bou Zid. And it's clearly not over yet.

But the very complications that have set in since the easy, early victories should warn against generalisations.

If you are born a Bahraini, the GDP on your head is 20 times greater than that of a Yemeni, and you are likely to live 13 years longer. If you are a woman, you will be twice as likely to be working as your Syrian sister, and she, in turn, is twice as likely to be literate as her Yemeni sister. Countries in the significant neighbour category if you are sitting in Damascus include Turkey, a country aspiring to join the European Union; while in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, they include Somalia, whose chaos has propelled half a million refugees across the Red Sea.

If you are Syrian or Yemeni, you try your damnedest to get a job somewhere else, and to get there by human trafficking networks if you have to, night boats and forged passports and bundles of cash stashed on your body.

But in Bahrain it's the other way round.

• Johnny West's latest book, KARAMA! Journeys Through The Arab Spring (on sale August 4th), is a travelogue through the Arab Spring in North Africa as it happened, from January to March 2011.

More than three out of four in the local workforce are foreigners, and if you travel to Europe or North America, you are more likely to be doing a masters with a couple of credit cards in your wallet than driving a mini-cab or helping on a friend's market stall for cash under the table.

To get caught in the news flow is also to risk missing the larger, irrevocable change which has already occurred. We may wring our hands over the remaining autocrats who cling so desperately to power. But it is already a massively different world from the one that prevailed for two generations.

I spend a lot of time trying to persuade people that this is a Berlin Wall moment on the other side of the Mediterranean. To anyone who has spent time in the Arab spring, it is not only the courage, but the widespread modesty and sense of humour of the protesters that is inspiring.

Momentous change is actually slower than it appears through the telescope of history. The French and Russian revolutions, the division of Europe after the Second World War and its reunification with the collapse of communism all took, depending how you rate them, at least two years.

This is such a moment, and still, on balance, a vastly positive one. It's still early days.

• Johnny West is a fluent Arab speaker and foreign correspondent who has lived and worked in the Middle East for more than a decade.

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