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West scrambles for position as Arab dominoes wobble

Can the dominoes continue to fall? The Arab spring is proving to be the Middle East's 1989 moment, a moment of great hope but great uncertainty. Nowhere more so than in Libya where the regime may be in its death throes but is refusing to go quietly.

Colonel Gaddafi, as far as one can glean anything from his deranged rants, seems to be prepared to go down fighting, a scorched-earth policy involving bombing his own people or using mercenaries to machine-gun them. His own supporters are melting away.

The Libyan justice minister, who has defected to the opposition, claims to have evidence that Colonel Gaddafi himself ordered the Lockerbie bombing which resulted in the deaths of 270 people. No wonder Gaddafi worked so hard to get the Lockerbie bomber back to Libya 18 months ago to make sure this guilty secret died with him.

The machine guns turned on demonstrators are no surprise. Nearly 30 years ago Gaddafi ordered his diplomats in London to fire on demonstrators outside the Libyan embassy with the tragic outcome of the death of Yvonne Fletcher, a young woman police officer.

Britain severed diplomatic relations. But in one of the most embarrassing moves of his premiership, Tony Blair flew to Libya to meet Gaddafi in 2004 to rehabilitate him on the grounds that he had agreed to give up his programme of developing weapons of mass destruction and was willing to allow Scotland Yard to bring the murderer of the woman police officer to justice. Well, of course he was.

He had seen what had happened to Saddam Hussein, who had been overthrown despite NOT having weapons of mass destruction and was terrified that his own rule, lacking any popular support and legitimacy, might be brought to an end. So the West, led by Britain and Italy, bought into it, literally. Trade and oil deals galore.

The US was sensibly more circumspect, though it too was not immune to the seductive appeal of oil. Bizarre that Blair, who had always claimed to be the enemy of appeasement, should have become an apostle of the worst kind of realpolitik.

If the Libyan people do gain their freedom from Gaddafi they will owe nothing to the West. It will be by their own blood. Already by UN estimates, at least 1,000 demonstrators have died, a blood sacrifice Patrick Pearse would have endorsed.

The events of the last few weeks support the validity of the proposition that liberal democracies will become the only form of government for all states in time. The trend is encouraging. According to Freedom House, a think tank, there are 123 electoral democracies (up from 40 in 1972) out of 192 countries.

Of course, overthrowing one tyranny doesn't guarantee a genuine democracy with respect for minorities and a rule of law. Electoral democracy isn't the same thing as a liberal democracy. As one wit put it, democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.

The Iranian revolution replacing the autocratic Shah with the Ayatollahs' theocracy can scarcely be regarded as a step in the right direction. Unlike Iran, the revolutions of the last few weeks have lacked a clear figurehead or focused opposition. The people have known what they want to get rid of, but have not yet been able to articulate what they want and who they trust to give it to them. In such circumstances, experience suggests a period of chaos, confusion and/or initially weak governments. This may be the immediate future for Egypt.

But Arab enfranchisement is now an irreversible process not all of which can be accomplished in a few heady weeks. Saudi Arabia, for instance, can probably buy off unrest for quite a while. It's just thrown billions of petrodollars at its population in the shape of increased welfare spending.

Outside the Arab Middle East, the Iranian opposition is still under the cosh and doesn't appear to have the critical mass to handle the combined threat posed by the hated revolutionary guards and the Basij paramilitaries. Indeed Iran's leaders are suddenly feeling more assertive as some of their most-hated Arab opponents are removed or in trouble. The sight of Iranian warships steaming through the Suez Canal for the first time since the mullahs took power is deeply disquieting for Israel.

Meanwhile the dominoes in Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain, Algeria and Morocco are wobbling. Absent serious reforms, they too will topple.

As the West scrambles to reposition itself on the side of the people rather than the rulers, it should remember the maxim, applicable to the Middle East as much as it did to the Soviet Empire, that all democracies are based on the proposition that power is very dangerous and that it is extremely important not to let any one person or small group have too much power for too long a time.

This inconvenient truth runs counter to what have been unwritten Western priorities in the Middle East, notably stability whether it be of regimes or oil prices. The prospect of Libyan and Algerian oil supplies being effectively suspended as civil war threatens has already sent oil prices sky high (some analysts fear it could reach over $200 a barrel) and threatens to stifle the very fragile world economic recovery.

But no one ever suggested democracy was cost free. It would, after all, be cheaper never to have elections.

Sir Ivor Roberts, president of Trinity College, Oxford, was a British ambassador to Ireland, Italy and Yugoslavia.

Sunday Independent