Robert Fisk: Right across the Arab world, freedom is now a prospect

From the mildewed, corrupted dictatorships is emerging a people reborn. Not without bloodshed and violence. But now at last, the Arabs can hope to march into the bright sunlit uplands

Robert Fisk
Tuesday 22 March 2011 01:00 GMT

In the dying days of the Ottoman empire, American diplomats – US consuls in Beirut, Jerusalem, Cairo and other cities – NGOs across the region and thousands of American missionaries, pleaded with the State Department and with President Wilson to create one modern Arab state stretching from the shores of Morocco to the borders of Mesopotamia and Persia. This, they believed, would bring a large part of the Muslim world into the democratic orbit of Europe and the West.

Of course, the Sykes-Picot agreement which had already secretly carved up the Middle East, a dying Woodrow Wilson and America's lurch into isolationism put paid to any such fanciful ideas. Besides, who knows if some Arabs might have preferred the "civilisation" of Rome and, just over a decade later, of Madrid and Berlin, to the supposedly decadent democracies elsewhere in Europe? In the end, the Second World War scarred Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Lebanon and left the rest comparatively unscathed. But this is the moment to recall the might-have-beens of history. For it is now just possible to recognise a future world in which we may be able to travel from Morocco to the Iraq-Iran border without a visa in our passports. Whether Arabs will be able to do this as speedily, of course, is another matter.

What is not in doubt is the extraordinary tempest passing through the region, the spectacular break-up of the Arab world which most of us have known for most of our lives and which most Arabs have known for most of their lives. From the mildewed, corrupted dictatorships – the cancer of the Middle East – is emerging a people reborn. Not without bloodshed, and not without much violence in front of them as well as behind them. But now at last the Arabs can hope to march into the bright sunlit uplands. Every Arab friend of mine has said exactly the same thing to me over the past weeks: "Never did I believe I would ever live to see this."

We have watched these earthquake tremors turn to cracks and the cracks into crevasses. From Tunisia to Egypt to Libya, to Yemen – perhaps only 48 hours from freedom – to Morocco and to Bahrain and, yes, even now to Syria, the young and the brave have told the world that they want freedom. And freedom, over the coming weeks and months, they will undoubtedly obtain. These are happy words to write, but they must be said with the greatest caution.

Despite all the confidence of D Cameron, Esq, I am not at all sure that Libya is going to end happily. Indeed, I'm not sure I know how it is going to end at all, although the vain and preposterous US attack on Gaddafi's compound – almost identical to the one that was staged in 1986 and took the life of Gaddafi's adopted daughter – demonstrated beyond any doubt that the intention of Obama is regime liquidation. I'm not certain, either, that Bahrain is going to be an easily created democracy, especially when Saudi Arabia – the untouchable chalice almost as sacred from criticism as Israel – is sending its military riff-raff across the border bridge.

I have noticed, of course, the whinging of the likes of Robert Skidelsky who believes that the Bush-Blair fantasy "liberation" of Iraq – which has ended up with the country effectively controlled from Tehran – led to the street uprisings today "But Western democracies' combination of freedom and order... is the product of a long history that cannot be replicated in short order," he has been saying. "Most non-Western peoples rely upon the ruler's personal virtues, not institutional limits on his power, to make their lives tolerable." I get the point. Arabs cannot be trusted with democracy – indeed they aren't ready for it like we smug Westerners are and, er, the Israelis of course. This is a bit like Israel saying – as it does say – that it is the only democracy in the Middle East, and then trying to ensure it stays that way by pleading for the Americans to keep Mubarak in power. Which is exactly what happened in January.

But Israel is a case worth examining. Usually capable of considerable forethought, its government and diplomats and overseas supporters have been hopelessly lazy and cackhanded in their response to the events thundering across the Arab world. Instead of embracing a new and democratic Egypt, they are sullenly warning of its volatility. For Israel's government, it now appears, the fall of dictators whom they have many times compared to Hitler is even worse than the dictators' preservation. We can see where the problem lies. A Mubarak would always obey orders – via Washington – from Israel. A new president will be under no such pressure. Voters in Egypt do not like the siege of Gaza. They are outraged by the theft of Arab land for Israeli colonies in the West Bank. No matter how big the bribes from Washington, no elected Egyptian president is going to be able to tolerate this state of affairs for long.

Talking of bribes, of course, the biggest of all was handed out last week – in promissory notes, to be sure – by the Saudi monarch, who is disbursing almost $150bn around his merry kingdom in the hope of being spared the wrath of his people. Who knows, it may work for a time. But as I always say, watch Saudi Arabia. And don't take your eyes off it.

The epic we can afford to forget, however, is the "war on terror". Scarcely a squeak from Osama's outfit for months. Now isn't that strange? The only thing I heard from "al Qa'ida" about Egypt was a call for the removal of Mubarak – a week after he had been deposed by people power. The latest missive from the man in the cave has urged the heroic peoples of the Arab world to remember that their revolutions have Islamic roots; which must come as a surprise to the people of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain et al. For they all demanded freedom and liberation and democracy. And there, in a sense, is the answer to Skidelsky. Does he believe they are all lying? And if so, why?

As I said, there is much blood still to flow. And many a meddling hand to turn new democracies into time-serving dictatorships. But for once – just once – the Arabs can see the broad sunlit uplands.

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