The sight of crowds gathering peaceably in Tunisia and Egypt and calling for the abdication of dictators and the end of authoritarian regimes was certainly touching, but as one watched the events of the Arab Spring unfold, it was difficult not to recall how welcome the Iranian Revolution and the overthrow of the Shah and the Savak, his dreaded secret police, seemed to many way back in 1979. The torture chambers of Iran would be emptied – only to receive new victims.
Then came Libya and the rebellion against Colonel Gaddafi. This time the West, led by Britain and France, chose to intervene, ostensibly to prevent Gaddafi from slaughtering his own people. The balance of power was redressed by Nato’s action, and soon it was Gaddafi loyalists who were being killed by our bombs and by the rebels we were supporting. Eventually Gaddafi himself was taken and summarily disposed of. What happens next? Sweetness and light and liberal democracy? It is highly unlikely. The new constitution is, it seems, to be based on Sharia law. Will our contribution to the overthrow of Gaddafi be gratefully remembered or quickly forgotten? Will it be thought to have been worth it?
In Tunisia elections have seen the Islamist party emerge as the strongest single force. The same result looks likely in Egypt when the results of the later rounds of the elections are in. Nevertheless the army generals, Mubarak men one and all till they thought it prudent to abandon the president who made them, remain in control, if shakily, with the army still a state within a state. Liberal democracy? They should be so lucky. Meanwhile the Christian Copts, some 10 per cent of the population, a community in Egypt for centuries before Mohammed received his mission from Allah, are under attack as seldom, perhaps never, before in their long history.
Then there was Syria. There still is Syria where president Assad is resisting a rebellion, fostered perhaps by the CIA or its arm’s length subsidiary, the security company Blackwater. The Assad regime is brutal. Will its enemies be any less so if they win?
American forces finally left Iraq after a war and occupation that cost at least 115,000 Iraqi deaths. Triumph? Perhaps? The day after their departure, the Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued an arrest warrant for the Sunni vice-president Tariq al-Hashemi, on charges of organising terrorist activities. Nice timing. Have we left a stable liberal democracy in the ravaged country? It doesn’t look like it.
The Arab Spring seemed a moment of hope. As winter sets in, that hope seems more like a delusion. Revolutionary activity may be inspiring. Revolutions themselves usually disappoint the enthusiasts whose defiance of authority set them in motion. Few turn out well. Western intervention usually, often after months or years of internal struggle, leads to the substitution of a new authoritarian regime for the old one. The losers end dead, or in prison or the new regime’s torture chambers
This may be remembered as the year when hope burgeoned in the Arab world, but the hope was like the seed sown on stony ground which sprang up quickly and died quickly because the roots were shallow. Perhaps our politicians will at last learn to leave other states and nations to shape their own future, however bloodily. Perhaps.
More probably they will continue to respond to the cry “something must be done,” and to yield to the temptation to play a starring role on the world stage.