The Arab revolution is consigning skip-loads of articles, books and speeches about the Middle East to the dustbin of history. In a few months, readers will go through libraries or newspaper archives and wonder how so many who claimed expert knowledge could have turned their eyes from tyranny and its consequences.
To a generation of politically active if not morally consistent campaigners, the Middle East has meant Israel and only Israel. In theory, they should have been able to stick by universal principles and support a just settlement for the Palestinians while opposing the dictators who kept Arabs subjugated. Few, however, have been able to oppose oppression in all its forms consistently. The right has been no better than the liberal-left in its Jew obsessions. The briefest reading of Conservative newspapers shows that at all times their first concern about political changes in the Middle East is how they affect Israel. For both sides, the lives of hundreds of millions of Arabs, Berbers and Kurds who were not involved in the conflict could be forgotten.
If you doubt me, consider the stories that the Middle Eastern bureau chiefs missed until revolutions that had nothing to do with Palestine forced them to take notice.
• Gaddafi was so frightened of a coup that he kept the Libyan army small and ill-equipped and hired mercenaries and paramilitary “special forces” he could count on to slaughter the civilian population when required.
• Leila Ben Ali, the wife of the Tunisian president, was a preposterously extravagant figure, who all but begged foreign correspondents to write about her rapacious pursuit of wealth. Only when Tunisians rose up did journalists stir themselves to tell their readers how she had pushed the populace to revolt by combining the least appealing traits of Imelda Marcos and Marie-Antoinette.
• Hearteningly, for those of us who retain a nostalgia for the best traditions of the old left, Tunisia and Egypt had independent trade unionists, who could play “a leading role”, as we used to say, in organising and executing uprisings.
Far from being a cause of the revolution, antagonism to Israel everywhere served the interests of oppressors. Europeans have no right to be surprised. Of all people, we ought to know from our experience of Nazism that antisemitism is a conspiracy theory about power, rather than a standard racist hatred of poor immigrants. Fascistic regimes reached for it when they sought to deny their own people liberty. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the forgery the far-right wing of the decaying tsarist regime issued in 1903 to convince Russians they should continue to obey the tsar’s every command, denounces human rights and democracy as facades behind which the secret Jewish rulers of the world manipulated gullible gentiles.
Syrian Ba’athists, Hamas, the Saudi monarchy and Gaddafi eagerly promoted the Protocols, for why wouldn’t vicious elites welcome a fantasy that dismissed democracy as a fraud and justified their domination? Just before the Libyan revolt, Gaddafi tried a desperate move his European predecessors would have understood. He tried to deflect Libyan anger by calling for a popular Palestinian revolution against Israel. That may or may not have been justified, but it assuredly would have done nothing to help the wretched Libyans.
In his Epitaph on a Tyrant, Auden wrote:
“When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter
And when he cried, the little children died in the streets.”
Europe’s amnesia about how tyranny operated in our continent explains why the Libyan revolution is embarrassing a rich collection of dupes and scoundrels who were willing to laugh along with Gaddafi. His contacts in Britain were once confined to the truly lunatic fringe. He supplied arms to the IRA, funded the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, Vanessa Redgrave’s nasty Trotskyist sect, and entertained Nick Griffin and other neo-Nazis. We should not forget them when the time comes to settle accounts. But when Tony Blair, who was so eloquent in denouncing the genocides of Saddam, staged a reconciliation with Gaddafi after 9/11, his friendship opened the way for the British establishment to embrace the dictatorship.
It was not only BP and other oil companies, but British academics who were happy to accept his largesse. The London School of Economics took £1.5m from Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, money which by definition had to have been stolen from the Libyan people, despite being warned to back away by Professor Fred Halliday, the LSE’s late and much-missed authority on the Middle East, who never flinched from looking dictators in the eye.
“I’ve come to know Saif as someone who looks to democracy, civil society and deep liberal values for the core of his inspiration,” purred the LSE’s David Held as he accepted the cheque. Human Rights Watch, once a reliable opponent of tyranny, went further and described a foundation Saif ran in Libya as a force for freedom, willing to take on the interior ministry in the fight for civil liberties. Meanwhile, and to the surprise of no one, Peter Mandelson, New Labour’s butterfly, fluttered round Saif at the country house parties of the plutocracy.
Last week, Saif, the “liberal” promoter of human rights and dining companion of Mandelson, appeared on Libyan television to say that his father’s gunmen would fight to the last bullet to keep the Gaddafi crime family in business, a promise he is keeping. The thinking behind so many who flattered him was that the only issue in the Middle East worth taking a stand on was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that the oppression of Arabs by Arabs was a minor concern.
The longevity of the regimes presided over by the Gaddafi, Assad and Mubarak families and the House of Saud ought to be a reason for denouncing them more vigorously, but their apparent permanence added to the feeling that somehow Libyans, Syrians, Egyptians and Saudis want to live under dictatorships.
The European Union, which did so much to export democracy and the rule of law to former communist dictatorships of eastern Europe, has played a miserable role in the Middle East. It pours in aid but never demands democratisation or restrictions on police powers in return. That will have to change if the promise of the past month is to be realised. If it is to help with democracy-building, Europe will need to remind itself as much as the recipients of its money that you can never build free societies on the racist conspiracy theories of the Nazis and the tsars. They are and always have been the tunes that tyrants sing.