Dominic Lawson: Losers who somehow end up winning

In all countries there are people who are attracted to power, and, as a result, are expert at attaining it and keeping it
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When John Simpson turns up in your country, you know regime change is inevitable. The BBC's indefatigable World Affairs Editor – I declare my interest as an old friend and sometime editor – is now in Libya looking to interview the winners and to pronounce his elegant obsequies on the losers.

Muammar Gaddafi, if everything goes according to script, will be the big loser of this particular upheaval. But who will come out on top after the revolution is over? That is a much trickier question. More often than we would like to think, the winners can include the bad guys from the ancien regime.

Last Wednesday, for example, Simpson scooped an interview with General Abdel Fattah Younis, who, after some cordial exchanges, turned to face the cameras directly to address the people of Libya: "My brothers, the time has now come for freedom, to advance on Tripoli and to put an end to this bloody regime." Splendid words, General.

Yet, until the day before, General Younis had been the Libyan government's Interior Minister and commander of its special forces. He had been an absolutely central figure throughout Gaddafi's 42-year dictatorship, a willing accomplice steeped in blood, torture and murder. As Simpson put it most delicately, the sudden imminence of Colonel Gaddafi's loss of power seemed to have converted the General to the cause of the sort of insurrection that, for over four decades, he had been in charge of crushing without mercy.

Elsewhere, the equally recently resigned Justice Minister, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, announced that he would head an interim government in "Free Libya". This was immediately attacked by the new National Council set up in Benghazi, whose spokesman said that there could be no accommodation with the remnants of the Gaddafi regime because of the "huge human rights abuses" that had been committed – although he somewhat paradoxically declared that the ex-Justice Minister could still be a member of the National Council.

This dispute touches on the dilemma confronting any new government after a long period of totalitarian dictatorship. The whole administrative class will have been involved in the oppression; it might, in the short and even the medium term, be impossible to keep the country running without them.

The experience of Iraq in the immediate aftermath of the removal of Saddam Hussein provides an object lesson. The interim administration under Paul Bremer put out an order banning all members of Saddam's Ba'ath Party from employment in the public sector – for good. This covered not just the civil service (such as it was) but teaching, medicine and the military. Thousands of the last category retaliated against their sudden loss of income and status by joining the insurgency. The country went from dictatorship to anarchy.

Yet, if rigorous de-Baathification was a disaster – one forecast by the US State Department and the CIA, who were overruled by the Defence Department – it had taken its inspiration from the aftermath of a more heroic military victory, that over the regime of Adolf Hitler. Under the so-called de-Nazification programme, by early 1947, the Allies had listed no fewer than 1.9million Nazi party members as forbidden by law to work as anything but manual labourers. Yet the first post-war West German Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, was implacably opposed to the de-Nazification policy and ensured that a series of amnesty laws were passed which pardoned not just minor functionaries but SS members who had been sentenced for "deeds against life".

Adenauer was not himself an ex-Nazi, but he saw the whole programme of de-Nazification as part of the Allies' determination to impose the idea of collective guilt on the German population as a whole. There is, obviously, a significant distinction between what happened in Germany after the Second World War or Iraq after the removal of Saddam and what is now happening in the Middle East and Africa: in the latter case, there is no outside power enforcing a new rule on a defeated nation. Here, the nations are unconquered and free to make their own mistakes in a new era without interference from outside.

Neither do we on the outside have the moral right to rush in with criticism of the Libyans, if they do make stomach-churning compromises with some of the members of the discredited former ruling elite. After all, we in the West – at least in the form of our governments – had been content to heap praise on Gaddafi and sell him arms and military training, as long as he agreed not to continue to be nasty to us: no compromise the Libyans might make could be as shabby as that.

Similarly, neither the Soviets nor the Americans were in much of a position to protest at Adenauer's rejection of de-Nazification, since they had both been only too happy to give employment to leading scientists responsible for the German rocket programme, many of them Nazi Party members. This fact was alluded to wryly by President Eisenhower: when asked why the Soviet space programme had taken a lead over America's much-better financed one, he is alleged to have replied: "Their German scientists are better than our German scientists."

This by-product of the exigencies of the Cold War is a far cry from actually putting in control of government the enforcers from an earlier dictatorship. Yet that is what has happened to a greater or lesser extent among the countries previously under Communist rule. It is frequently said that the current wave of popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa is an echo of the overthrow of the communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe in 1989. If they really are an echo, than we can expect members of Colonel Gaddafi's apparatus to take power at some point in the not-too-distant future, and even to be elected to do so.

In Hungary and Poland, Communists reinvented themselves as Social Democrats and won power again, which led many among the nationalist movement in those countries to question if there had been a revolution at all. In Romania and Bulgaria, too, some fairly brutal types from the old regimes had never lost hope of regaining political power, and in many cases they were not to be disappointed.

The most striking of all these case histories is Russia itself, the country whose military had backed the crushing of earlier uprisings in Budapest and Prague and which only gave up its grip on a European empire of vassal states when its domestic economy collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. Two decades on, the security apparatus built up by Lenin and Stalin has re-established its grip on political power in Russia, exemplified by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a career KGB officer. He sits atop a vast network of Siloviki – a Russian term meaning "power guys" – largely former members of the KGB and its successor organisation, the FSB.

"Power guys" is actually a useful term which deserves wider application. In all countries, there tend to be the sort of people who are attracted to power, and as a result are expert in attaining it, keeping it – and regaining a share of it after an unwelcome interruption. These will not necessarily include the people who have been fighting so heroically for political freedom on the streets of Tunis, Cairo and Tripoli.