THE spark first lit in Tunisia has ignited a fire spreading across north Africa and the Middle East. Out of the flames have emerged peaceful revolutions and the overthrow of dictators. But other oppressive regimes are determined to stamp out the fire.
Last night, the full-scale crisis in Libya continued unabated. It was believed that the dictator Muammar Gaddafi had fled from Tripoli. Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam, for his part, has engaged in wild talk about civil war and "rivers of blood". Oil and gold prices have surged and, according to reports from Israel, another dictator has acted in typical fashion.
The reports say that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has sent warships into the Suez Canal on their way to Syria. Ahmadinejad has a record of suppressing democracy in his country and collaborating with Syria in destabilising the region. But when it comes to stability -- when it comes to examining the causes of the conflagration and how to promote peaceful and democratic solutions -- more considerable countries should examine their consciences and urgently review their policies.
For many decades the US, Europe and Israel have all supported oppressive regimes in Arab countries. Some are feudal-type monarchies, some had their origins in revolution, but the denial of human rights has been uniform.
This situation could not survive the emergence of a large educated class. Repression may work for a time, but not permanently. The reactions of religious and political leaders are telling. In some countries, the Muslim clergy have supported the pro-democracy protesters. The secretary-general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, has backed the demands of the Libyan demonstrators.
But Europe is divided. Germany and Britain have taken a strong line -- in Britain's case, no doubt, partly to counter the way the previous government "cosied up" to Gaddafi. But the Italian foreign minister, Franco Frattini, says we must not have "an Islamic emirate" on our borders. The implication is that the West should support the status quo.
The fundamental weakness of the argument is that the status quo simply cannot be maintained. Either north Africa and the Middle East move toward democracy, with whatever help the West can give them, or the region will lapse into greater instability. Enlightened self-interest dictates that the West should support new regimes that are capable of governing with decency and humanity.