Since the recent unrest started spreading through North Africa and the Middle East like a winter flu epidemic, I’ve lost count of the number of pundits I’ve heard make comparisons with the collapse of Eastern European communist regimes in 1989. Inevitably, the word “spring” has come to be tagged on to all revolutionary moments that history adjudges to be progressive, from the 1848 spring revolutions in Europe, to the 1968 Prague spring, to those “spring in winter” revolutions of 1989, even to the Beirut spring of the “Cedar revolution”. And so we must now talk of the “Middle East Spring”.
But it’s that 1989 comparison which holds most resonance. The particular parallel that seems to be popular is that between Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania and Col Gaddafi of Libya. In a sense the parallel is not entirely misplaced. There is a macabre, almost comedic, similarity between Ceausescu’s bewildered disbelief that “his” people were no longer listening to him, and were instead booing and gesticulating, and Gaddafi’s increasingly manic television appearances, replete with umbrella and equally deranged and hopeless disconnection with the reality in his fiefdom.
But I think the comparison obscures much more than it reveals. It’s not the similarities that matter, it’s the contrasts. And those were most bizarrely, pathetically, pointed up by the ridiculous spectacle of David Cameron touring the recently protested capitals of the region, producing from his mouth the vacuous rhetoric of peoples rising up against their oppressors, whilst in fact touting yet more sales of the weapons of civil constraint to those very same oppressors.
And here is the real difference between 1989 and 2011. In 1989, the West could, and did, hail those revolutions as evidence of their ideological victory over communism and the pre-eminence of market economics. The governments that were tumbling were their enemies. By contrast, the Arab governments now tumbling have been the West’s friends, even when that friendship has been overlaid with rhetoric about democracy, and the evils of terrorism. The utter hypocrisy of Cameron, and no less of Obama and Clinton, in trying to present themselves as the champions of the protesters is frankly breath-taking. These are governments that we in the West have armed – including of course both Gaddafi’s Libya and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq no less than Mubarak’s Egypt – and sustained in power in the service of our geo-political interests. Even America cannot resist the flows of history for ever, and it now finds itself having quickly to adjust to new realities, and to a future in which client regimes in the Middle East may no longer be prepared to play the West’s power games in order to enrich themselves and oppress their peoples.
There is a real empire falling in the Middle East. But it’s not the kind of empire that fell in 1989, one with which we had been locked in struggle over decades. Rather, it’s our own proxy empire that’s crumbling all around us. The empire that we needed to safeguard our oil supplies, and to maintain our economic dominance. But in truth, it had long since served its purpose. With the rise of the economic power of China and India, with the energy supremacy of Russia, and with the slow weaning of the West from its utter reliance on Middle Eastern oil, new realities are pressing on us. The frank, brutal, amoral truth is simply this. Maintaining the proxy empire of client Arab states no longer makes economic sense. Don’t be fooled by the cynical wearing of the mantle of democratic freedoms now being donned by American and European politicians. They support the “Middle East spring” because they no longer want to maintain the regimes they have previously paid so much to cultivate. If the Arab peoples had not wrested their freedom in the streets, it would have come anyway once the economic game had fully changed.
Don’t forget, either, that this oil-based political power-play is not just some Machiavellian wickedness on the part of our political class: it’s what we ourselves have wanted, to keep our cars running and our plastic comforts abundant. We’ve all benefited from the oppressors we’ve bankrolled. A few supportive expressions on Twitter do not absolve us, however much we might want to imagine that they do.