Robert Fisk: How long before the dominoes fall?

The West is offering lessons in democracy to New Libya; how to avoid the chaos we ourselves inflicted on the Iraqis

Robert Fisk
Tuesday 23 August 2011 00:00 BST

The remaining Arab potentates and tyrants have spent a second sleepless night. How soon will the liberators of Tripoli metamorphose into the liberators of Damascus and Aleppo and Homs? Or of Amman? Or Jerusalem? Or of Bahrain or Riyadh? It's not the same, of course.

The Arab Spring-Summer-Autumn has proved not just that the old colonial frontiers remain inviolate – an awful tribute to imperialism, I suppose – but that every revolution has its own characteristics. If all Arab uprisings have their clutch of martyrs, some rebellions are more violent than others. As Saif al-Islam Gaddafi said at the start of his own eventual downfall, "Libya is not Tunisia, it's not Egypt...It will become civil war. There will be bloodshed on the streets." And there was.

And so we gaze into the crystal ball. Libya will be a Middle East superpower – unless we impose an economic occupation as the price of Nato's "liberating" bombardment – and a less African, more Arab country now that Gaddafi's obsession with central and southern Africa has disappeared. It may infect Algeria and Morocco with its freedoms. The Gulf states will be happy – up to a point – since most regarded Gaddafi as mentally unstable as well as mischievous. But unseating tyrannical Arab rulers is a dangerous game when unelected Arab rulers join in. Who now remembers the forgotten 1977 war in which Anwar Sadat sent his bombers to pulverise Gaddafi's airbases – the very same airbases Nato has been attacking these past months – after Israel warned the Egyptian president that Gaddafi was planning his assassination? But Gaddafi's dictatorship outlived Sadat by 30 years.

Yet like all the others, Libya suffered from the cancer of the Arab world: financial – and moral – corruption. Will the future be any different? We have spent far too much time honouring the courage of Libyan "freedom fighters" as they scurried across the desert floor, far too little time examining the nature of the beast, the glutinous Transitional National Council whose supposed leader, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, has still been unable to explain if his own chums connived in the murder of their own army commander last month. Already, the West is offering lessons in democracy to New Libya, indulgently telling its unelected leadership how to avoid the chaos which we ourselves inflicted on the Iraqis when we "liberated" them eight years ago. Who will get the backhanders in the new regime – democratic or not – once it is in place?

And just as all new regimes contain dark figures from the past – Adenauer's Germany as much as Maliki's Iraq – so Libya will have to accomodate Gaddafi's tribes. The scenes in Green Square yesterday were painfully similar to the crazed adoration on display at the same location for Gaddafi just a few weeks ago. Recall, then, the day De Gaulle was asked by an aide how the crowds greeting him after the 1944 liberation of France were as large as the crowds applauding Pétain a few weeks earlier. "Ils sont les mêmes," De Gaulle is said to have replied. "They are the same."

Not all. How soon will the world be knocking on the door of the supposedly dying Abdulbaset al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber – if indeed he was guilty of the crime – to discover the secret of his longevity and of his activities within Gaddafi's secret service? How soon will the liberators of Tripoli get their hands on the files of Gaddafi's oil and foreign ministries to find out the secrets of the Blair-Sarkozy-Berlusconi love affairs with the author of the Green Book? Or will British and French spooks beat them to it?

And how soon, we must ask, before the people of Europe demand to know why, if Nato has been so successful in Libya – as Cameron and his mates now claim – it cannot be used against Assad's legions in Syria, using Cyprus as a territorial aircraft-carrier, devastating the regime's 8,000 tanks and armoured vehicles as they besiege the country's cities. Or must we heed the neighbours; Israel still secretly hopes (as it shamefully did in the case of Egypt) that the dictator will survive to be a friend and make an ultimate peace over Golan.

Israel, which has been so skewed and immature in its response to the Arab awakening – why on earth did its leaders not welcome the Egyptian revolution, opening their arms to a people who showed they wanted the democracy which Israel always boasts of, instead of shooting dead five Egyptian soldiers in the latest Gaza shoot-out? – has much to ponder.

Ben Ali gone, Mubarak gone, Saleh more or less gone, Gaddafi overthrown, Assad in danger, Abdullah of Jordan still facing opposition, Bahrain's minority Sunni monarchy still suicidally hoping to rule for eternity. These are massive historical events to which the Israelis have responded with a kind of appalled, hostile apathy. At the very moment when Israel might be able to claim that its Arab neighbours are only seeking the freedoms that Israelis already possess – that there is a brotherhood of democracy that might go beyond frontiers – it sulks and builds more colonies on Arab land and continues to delegitimise itself while accusing the world of trying to destroy it.

But the Ottoman empire cannot be forgotten at so critical an hour. At the height of its power, you could travel from Morocco to Constantinople without papers. With freedom in Syria and Jordan, we could travel from Algeria to Turkey and onwards into Europe without so much as a visa. The Ottoman Empire reborn! Except for the Arabs, of course. Be sure they will still need visas.

We are not there yet. How soon will the Shiites of Bahrain and the listless Saudi masses, sitting atop so much wealth, ask why they cannot control their own countries and press on to overthrow their effete rulers? How gloomily Maher al-Assad, brother of Bashar and commander of Syria's infamous 4th Brigade, must have listened to al-Jazeera's last phone call to Mohammed Gaddafi. "We lacked wisdom and foresight," Mohammed complained to the world before gunfire broke across his voice. "They are in the house!". Then: "God is great." And the line went dead.

Every unelected Arab leader – or any Muslim leader "elected" through fraud – will have pondered that voice. Wisdom is certainly a quality much lacking in the Middle East, foresight a skill which the Arabs and the West have both neglected. East and West – if they can be divided so crudely – have both lost the ability to think of the future. The next 24 hours is all that matters. Will there be protests in Hama tomorrow? What is Obama to say on prime time? What is Cameron to say to the world? Domino theories are a fraud. The Arab Spring is going to last for years. We better think about that. There is no "end of history".

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