Leading article: Freedom is not to be feared

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Sparks from the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt are igniting fires big and small across the region. It is still far too early to know where, or whether, they may claim thrones or change regimes. But as was so evident with Egypt, change on this scale produces dilemmas for the West, and it is Libya that could now present the severest test.

The violent clashes in Benghazi were prompted by the arrest of an outspoken Libyan lawyer. In different times, perhaps, such an event might have been hushed up. On either side of Libya, however, Tunisians and Egyptians had shown what ordinary people can do when they decide enough is enough. Supporters of the lawyer, Fathi Terbil, came out on to the streets in his support. Subsequent reports suggested that he had been freed and might also have obtained the release of 100 prisoners. It remains to be seen whether such a one-off concession – if that is what it is – can keep further protests at bay.

Unfortunately, the US and Europe may be more reluctant than they should be to come out unequivocally in favour of the opposition. For the best part of a decade Libya has been hailed as an ally by the West. Where Saddam Hussein persisted – or so it was erroneously believed – in stockpiling weapons of mass destruction and found himself removed by force, Colonel Gadaffi surrendered his nuclear ambitions to bring his country into the international mainstream. He also agreed to prevent migrants leaving for Europe from Libyan shores. He was rewarded with trade deals and security guarantees, and there was much mutual congratulation about how the world was now a safer place.

Libya is neither Tunisia nor Egypt. Its "people's committees" offer elements of a grassroots democracy. But little of this extends beyond the localities. In all other respects, Mr Gadaffi rules supreme. There is no reason to suppose that change – when it comes to Libya, as eventually it must – will reverse the security gains that depended on one leader's word. On the contrary, Western governments should trust that more freedom will benefit the rest of the region as much as it will benefit Libyans.

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