The end of the age of dictators in the Arab world? Certainly they are shaking in their boots across the Middle East, the well-heeled sheiks and emirs, and the kings, including one very old one in Saudi Arabia and a young one in Jordan, and presidents – another very old one in Egypt and a young one in Syria – because Tunisia wasn’t meant to happen. Food price riots in Algeria, too, and demonstrations against price increases in Amman. Not to mention scores more dead in Tunisia, whose own despot sought refuge in Riyadh – exactly the same city to which a man called Idi Amin once fled.
Watch The Last King of Scotland… why do all the despots seem to flee to Saudi?
No, in the Arab world, we want law and order and stability. Even in Hosni Mubarak’s corrupt and corrupted Egypt, that’s what we want. And we will get it.
The truth, of course, is that the Arab world is so dysfunctional, sclerotic, corrupt, humiliated and ruthless – and remember that Mr Ben Ali was calling Tunisian protesters “terrorists” only last week – and so totally incapable of any social or political progress, that the chances of a series of working democracies emerging from the chaos of the Middle East stand at around zero per cent.
The job of the Arab potentates will be what it has always been – to “manage” their people, to control them, to keep the lid on, to love the West and to hate Iran.
Indeed, what was Hillary Clinton doing last week as Tunisia burned? She was telling the corrupted princes of the Gulf that their job was to support sanctions against Iran, to confront the Islamic republic, to prepare for another strike against a Muslim state after the two catastrophes the United States and the UK have already inflicted in the region.
The Muslim world – at least, that bit of it between India and the Mediterranean – is a more than sorry mess. Iraq has a sort-of-government that is now a satrap of Iran, Hamid Karzai is no more than the mayor of Kabul, Pakistan stands on the edge of endless disaster, Egypt has just emerged from another fake election.
And Lebanon… Well, poor old Lebanon hasn’t even got a government. Southern Sudan – if the elections are fair – might be a tiny candle, but don’t bet on it.
It’s the same old problem for us in the West. We mouth the word “democracy” and we are all for fair elections – providing the Arabs vote for whom we want them to vote for.
In Algeria 20 years ago, they didn’t. In “Palestine” they didn’t. And in Lebanon, because of the so-called Doha accord, they didn’t. So we sanction them, threaten them and warn them about Iran and expect them to keep their mouths shut when Israel steals more Palestinian land for its colonies on the West Bank.
For years, this wretched man had been talking about a “slow liberalising” of his country. But all dictators know they are in greatest danger when they start freeing their entrapped countrymen from their chains.
And the Arabs behaved accordingly. No sooner had Ben Ali flown off into exile than Arab newspapers which have been stroking his fur and polishing his shoes and receiving his money for so many years were vilifying the man. “Misrule”, “corruption”, “authoritarian reign”, “a total lack of human rights”, their journalists are saying now. Rarely have the words of the Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran sounded so painfully accurate: “Pity the nation that welcomes its new ruler with trumpetings, and farewells him with hootings, only to welcome another with trumpetings again.” Mohamed Ghannouchi, perhaps?
And they will do what we want. Ben Ali has fled. The search is now on for a more pliable dictator in Tunisia – a “benevolent strongman” as the news agencies like to call these ghastly men.