Mark Steel: Rulers who still need our sympathy

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The Independent Online

The most worrying side to world events is if Gaddafi and Berlusconi both depart, there'll be hardly any world leaders left to offer Tony and Cherie Blair a free holiday. It only needs Murdoch to be overthrown and the Blairs will have to go to Pontins at Camber Sands.

Luckily, they seem to have instructed the current Government in how to deal with dictators, so the chairman of the parliamentary group that deals with Bahrain, Conor Burns, went on the radio to say that His Royal Highness the King and his son the Crown Prince of Bahrain are committed to democracy. Of course they are. The King believes in one man, one vote – him. They even use the AV system, with the King voting for himself as King, with his son second choice.

Once Mr Burns has had more experience, he might spot that there are clues in the name of Bahrain's rulers as to their preference for a system that isn't all that democratic. Words such as "His Excellency" and "Crown Prince" and "King" suggest they favour a method of rule that doesn't entirely rely on the popular vote, but it takes time to read between the lines like that.

Another clue is that the deputy commander of the armed forces is the Crown Prince, or maybe that is just coincidence and the King's son really was the best man for the job, selected after an exhaustive series of interviews and role-play exercises. And some of the other candidates went home and said: "I think it went quite well, it's down to me and the Crown Prince, so fingers crossed."

Even so, Mr Burns insisted, the King is "trying to reform", and there is a long tradition of undemocratic leaders who have tried the same. Supporters of apartheid, such as Margaret Thatcher, always insisted South Africa was "trying to reform". So was the Shah of Iran, and the Soviet Union and Mubarak, but it is always really hard luck that they never quite get round to it and then they are overthrown before they get the chance. Another phrase Mr Burns used in defence of the King was "this is not Egypt". This is becoming a catchphrase for Western officials backing a regime against protesters, as if they knew all along that Egypt was corrupt, and cleverly disguised their distaste by arming and financing the place, but this regime is lovely and the demonstrators must have made a mistake. If Mubarak had been smarter he would have responded to the protests in Cairo by saying: "What are you doing? This is not Egypt."

Mr Burns insisted that there are elections in Bahrain, which is true, but the royals still make the major decisions, such as whether to shoot people. This presented a problem for the Conservative fan of the King, as his radio interview followed an account from a witness, speaking live from Bahrain, agonisingly describing the killing. So the MP said this account was thoroughly "unreliable". Because the trouble with these reports from protesters and journalists and doctors is that they are actually there, so they don't get a true picture, which is much easier to put together if you're at home in Bournemouth. Mr Burns probably did an extensive search on Google Earth and couldn't see any corpses, so it is obvious that this whole thing was a huge misunderstanding.

Mr Burns saved his best for last. The folly of the protesters, he said, was that the Saudi government might watch and think: "Well if that's the gratitude you get for trying to reform, we won't bother." That's right, you know who's to blame for the dictators in Saudi – the people protesting in Bahrain, the selfish bastards. The sensitive Saudi royals are considering moving towards trying to reform but they're easily startled, so the last thing we need is people complaining about being shot, especially when they're probably making it up.

Next week we'll hear from the Cross-Parliamentary Anglo-al-Qa'ida Friendship Society, who will declare that "Mr Bin Laden is committed to reform but these things take time".



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