The second Arab awakening of modern history – the first was the Arab revolt against the Ottoman empire – requires some new definitions, perhaps even some new words in at least the English language.
And some new calculator that will instantly register the old age of dictators and the growing army of the young. If you survive into senility, you can enter the category of great political criminals of contemporary history.
My Maghreb colleague Béchir Ben Yahmed has pointed out that after 42 years in power, Muammar Gaddafi is up there with the worst of them. Kim Il-Sung registered 46 years, Saddam a mere 35 years. Mubarak scored 32 years in the dictatorship stakes, Sékou Touré of Guinea 26 years, Franco of Spain and Salazar of Portugal, the same number. On this scale, Tony Blair's puny 10-years-plus substantially reduces his status as a war criminal, a man who might be allowed – instead of arraignment for the illegal invasion of Iraq – a lavish villa in Sharm el-Sheikh (where, after all, Cherie used to like to stay at the Mubarak government's expense).
Ben Yahmed suggests that in the violent case of Libya, we are dealing not so much with a revolution as with "revolutionary anarchism on the basis of tribalism", since Libya may be in the process of breaking apart. I'm not sure I agree – although the people of Benghazi will want Tripolitanians to know that they were their liberators. Gaddafi, indeed, has become a kind of "recidivist" although, even if the opposition has cried victory too soon, Gaddafi is now ruling only a "half-Gaddafi" state which can only be temporary.
And we will, I feel sure, have to redefine the nature of the act which lit the proverbial – and the real – match: the immolation by fire of Mohamed Bouazizi who, crushed by both the state and its corruption and then slapped by a policewoman, chose death to the continuation of qahr – which in English might be translated as "total powerlessness". He preferred, as Tunisian psychoanalyst Fethi Benslama has remarked, "annihilation over a life of nothingness". Bouazizi, however, will not join the list of al-Qa'ida's favourite martyrs. He took no enemy lives with him; his jihad was one of despair, which is certainly not encouraged by the Koran. He provided proof that a suicider can unwittingly produce a revolution and become a martyr for an oppressed people rather than for God. His death – though I know I will be told that this decision is up to a Higher Authority – gave him no assurance of paradise; thus his act must be regarded as politically more important than that of the suicide bomber. He was, in fact, an "anti-kamikaze".
In a year in which the very last "Rue Pétain" has been deleted in rural France – Beirut replaced its own in 1941 with the downfall of the Vichy regime – it's only fair to say that an awful lot of Gaddafi's fawning tributes are going to have to be torn down in his rump state once it falls. Green Book museums – even, perhaps, the wreckage of his home pulverised by American bombs in 1986 – will eventually meet their fiery end. Staff at the Marriott Hotel in Zamalek slunk off with Mubarak's portrait before midnight on the day of his overthrow; future guests will notice the faintly disturbing square of unusually light wallpaper to the left of the reception desk.
And there are plenty of Mubarak Streets, Mubarak Stadiums and Mubarak Hospitals to be renamed. Economist Mohamed el-Dahshan has referred to the "demubarakisation" of Egypt; I suppose all the Mubarak Streets must now become "The Street of 25th January" – the start of the latest Egyptian revolution – and I fear that if the 80 per cent Shias of Bahrain one day govern their country, there will have to be quite a lot of dekhalifaisation. And in Aden, desalehisation. And in Libya, deghadaffiisation has already begun.
But while the Egyptian revolution is – barring a counter-coup by Mubarak's old apparatchiks – the happiest story I have ever covered in the Middle East, I still fear much of this will end in tears, new "democracies" ending up much like previous regimes. Saudi Arabia remains the dark knight on my chessboard. Let's see what happens next Friday...
But I hope the new revolutionaries of the Arab world don't start, in their fervour, erasing the identity of whole cities. Benghazi should not become "The City of Eleven Martyrs" – as Stalingrad became the pathetic Volgograd – nor Tobruk retitled. The Tunisians adopted Carthage as the nom de plume of Tunis. Indeed, it is worth remembering the more recent history of the lands which we journalists are now racing across in our 4x4s. My colleagues travelling to Libya from the east swept past El-Alamein and on to Tobruk. Last week, I drove by night from Tunis in the west, my headlights glinting off signposts to the Kasserine Pass – where the Americans thought they would give Rommel a bloody nose but got a bloodier one themselves, courtesy of the Afrika Korps – and Mareth of "Mareth Line" fame. My own late foreign editor of The Times, Louis Heren, was "brewed up" in his tank outside Benghazi, and survived.
Oddly, everyone came to grief between Tobruk and Tunisia in the Second World War. Tobruk fell to the British in January 1941, was besieged by the Afrika Korps for 200 days, relieved by General Cunningham in November, captured by Erwin Rommel in June 1942 – "a disaster", Churchill muttered when he heard the news on a visit to the White House – but recaptured by the Allies five months later. Now it is the first city to be liberated by the anti-Gaddafi opposition. The French screenwriter Michel Audiard, who wrote the script for the Desert Fox movie Taxi for Tobruk, said that, in his opinion, "the only pleasant thing in war is the victory parade – everything before is shit!".
Who can disagree – providing, of course, the right people claim the victory? Recidivists? Anti-kamikazis? "Half-Gaddafi" states, revolutions, rebellions, insurrections, Arab awakenings; they are usually a bloody business. Yet I have to say that my favourite redefinition appeared in a wonderful cartoon in the Tunisian daily La Presse this week, after Beji Caid Essebsi was named prime minister. "In my opinion," says the cartoon Tunisian, "our real prime minister is called Facebook!"Reuse content