Adrian Hamilton: This is not about power. It's about a different world

International Studies
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The Independent Online

With a repellent sense of timing Tony Blair is appearing in Prospect magazine with an interview arguing that the Arab world's problems don't start with despotism and corruption but still revolve around the Palestinian problem.

Well he would say that, wouldn't he? The bosom pal of Colonel Gaddafi, the friend of Arab kings and presidential tyrants, is not suddenly going to announce he got it all wrong in the interests of commercial imperatives and personal vanity. He's still Middle East envoy and is desperate to retain his position as a world statesman.

But what he's saying is just arrant nonsense. The current wave of unrest in North Africa and the Middle East has, for once, nothing to do with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (although it will have profound consequences for Israel and the US in the region). What it does have everything to do with is the pervasive presence of cronyism and corruption which has ruled the region for a generation and more and which Tony Blair and successive western leaders, French as well as American, found it in their interests to sustain and benefit from.

The really interesting question now, as the demonstrations widen, is whether this wave of uprising will be confined to the Middle East or whether it will extend to all sorts of other countries, non-Muslim as well Islamic. Set down the pressures behind the North African protests – the high proportion of unemployed youth who feel themselves disempowered by corruption and the patronage system of a long-held elite, a widening gap between rich and poor, a pervasive sense of corruption – and you have the characteristics of half the countries east of Suez and most of those south of it (not that Latin America be excluded). India, as local commentators have not been slow to point out, fits the bill as well as anyone. So does Russia and most of the Central Asian republics.

Of course the Arab world has it own special grievances, not least the residue of colonialism and the continuation of western intervention in their affairs for reasons of oil and Israel's security. What Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Yemen also have in common are regimes which have been in power for at least a generation if not (as in Colonel Gaddafi's case) considerably more. But then you could say the same of the authoritarian, Russian-educated regimes which have followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in Central Asia and the governments of south-east Asia.

Democracy may have helped. It probably has done so in the case of South Korea and Indonesia. But as the example of India suggests, democracy itself does not remove the problems of corruption and the divisions between rich and poor, or, between the empowered and disempowered.

It is too neat to categorise, as some commentators have, the current demonstrations as a movement for democracy. Populist they certainly are. Their demands for a change of regime are paramount. But what combines the dissident forces is not so much a reach for power but a desire for change which has brought the educated and uneducated middle class people, and workers, together. They want an end to a world with which they have become totally disenchanted, but the demands for release of prisoners, the resignations of premiers and an end to corruption do not amount to a positive manifesto for the future.

That's what makes this "revolution" so difficult to predict. We are used to upsurges in which regimes are overthrown by groups – political, military or religious – that seek power. But what is going on in the Middle East is both unexpected and different from the past. It's not about power. It's about a different world.

It is too early to be either optimistic of pessimistic about it. One can hope, but not necessarily believe, that it will lead to the happy world of peaceful Arab democracies. But I don't believe life will be the same again, and that applies to a world far wider than the Arab one.

I don't buy Owen's analysis

The former foreign secretary David Owen was on the BBC yesterday declaring that the West must intervene to prevent a mad Colonel Gaddafi bringing the whole house of cards down on himself with huge loss of life to his own population.

And he is right. Gaddafi is capable of anything. His decision to use bombers against his own people takes this uprising to a different level of violence from any of his neighbours. If the West, Nato most obviously, could impose a no-fly zone and stop his jets massacring civilians from the air, then we would have done more good and received more credit than any amount of words in the UN. We failed, shamefully, to do it effectively to help the Shia uprising after the 1991 war; we did it more effectively to save the Kurds afterwards.

It's not the effectiveness that worries me. Nor the legality of doing so without UN sanction, or even the problems of imposing such a ban while flying in civilian aircraft to rescue our own people trapped there. It's that we simply have no idea of what happens next or how fast it develops. Gaddafi is losing because his army and his government are deserting him. He clings on with the use of elite security services and mercenaries. But these may not be enough to fly aircraft or to take back parts of the country already lost. If the outside world wants to help the Libyans it needs to freeze the Gaddafi family assets and make clear there is no hiding place for war criminals.