… And despite the naive predictions of a new liberal order, the future might well prove a very dangerous place indeed—with potentially devastating economic repercussions for millions of British families.
Indeed, in all the excitement at the fall of the Arab autocracies, it is hard to miss the whiff of Western hubris.
Like the arrogant neo-conservatives who thought it would be child’s play to export democracy to Iraq, many of the idealists exulting in the giddy triumphs of street politics believe history is on their side.
Sadly, history has a habit of kicking idealists in the teeth. The revolutions in the Arab world are far from over.
And when events have played themselves out, there is a good chance the results will be very different from the utopian fantasies of the armchair pundits.
As a student of history, David Cameron will recall that revolutions rarely turn out as their architects intend. [LA replies: David Cameron is a student of history? I thought he was a student of public relations.] And as the great Whig thinker Edmund Burke pointed out at the time of the French Revolution, rebellions rapidly develop their own uncontrollable momentum.
In France, the utopian dreams of 1789 soon turned into the horrific bloodshed of the Reign of Terror.
The ballot box gave way to the guillotine; the committees and conventions were ultimately replaced by the rapacious megalomania of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Far from emerging into the sunshine of democracy, Europe was plunged into one of its bloodiest wars, with some four million people losing their lives.
Of course, not all revolutions turn out quite like that. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 is rightly remembered as the high point of People Power, bringing freedom, democracy and capitalism to the enslaved nations of Eastern Europe.
Even then, though, we should recall that in the former Yugoslavia, the end of Communist rule unleashed an orgy of ethnic bloodletting at the cost of some 200,000 lives.
But what the idealists often forget is that not all uprisings, like the peaceful transition in the former Czechoslovakia, come cloaked in velvet.
All too often, as in Mexico in 1910 or Russia in 1917, violence begets violence….
This is not, after all, the first time that the people of the Middle East have risen against a corrupt autocrat.
You do not need a long memory to find the scenes on the streets of Cairo irresistibly reminiscent of a similar uprising 30 years ago, when the downtrodden people of Iran poured into the streets to celebrate the overthrow of the Shah, another Western-funded tyrant.
Like today’s Arab revolutions, the Iranian revolution of 1978-9 seemed an intoxicating moment of hope. But we all know how that turned out.
As the revolutionary momentum built to a climax, democratic ambitions yielded to religious despotism.
Three decades on, the ayatollahs are still in power, basking in their enormous oil revenues, their nuclear ambitions a chilling reminder that the real world can be a very dangerous place indeed.
Few experts think there is any serious possibility of Islamic fundamentalists taking over in Tunisia or Egypt. Still, the road ahead is paved with dangers, and a smooth transition to democratic prosperity, as in parts of Eastern Europe after 1989, seems highly unlikely.
These are, after all, some of the most combustible nations in the world, with poor, frustrated and very young populations. In Morocco and Algeria, more than 17 per cent of young people are unemployed.
In Egypt, where the median age is just 24, a staggering 43 per cent of young people are currently out of work. And in the repressive, impoverished state of Yemen, some 42 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, with most scratching a living on less than two dollars a day.
The potential for resentment and rage, in other words, could hardly be greater. It is less than ten years since the end of the Algerian Civil War, when some 200,000 people lost their lives.
And when you throw ethnic and religious tensions into the mix—between Berbers and Arabs in Morocco, for example, or Muslims and Coptic Christians in Egypt—then it is not hard to imagine frustration turning into violence.
If that apocalyptic scenario came to pass, then we in the West would not escape the consequences.
For should unrest spread to the autocratic oil monarchies of the Gulf, as has already happened in the tiny kingdom of Bahrain, then we would soon see the catastrophic results at the petrol pumps.
Indeed, if you ever doubted that what happens in the Middle East can have seismic repercussions in the British household, then you need only think back to the nightmare-ish events of the Seventies, from the Arab-Israeli war of 1973 to the revolution in Iran six years later.
Many older readers will shudder at the thought of what happened next: the queues outside petrol stations, the shortages of candles and oil lamps, the chaos of the three-day week, the soaring interest rates, the plunging stock market and the terrifying news that inflation had hit 26 per cent.
And beneath all the headlines there runs a deeper historical fault-line. Only last week, China overtook Japan to become the world’s second largest economy.
And only this week, in a dramatic indication of the shifting balance of power, two Iranian warships sailed through the Suez Canal for the first time since 1979.
Globalisation has thrown the world into flux. With American power in palpable retreat, it would not be surprising if the new Arab governments ended up looking east, not west.
And it is surely not too fanciful to imagine that one day, future generations will see 2011 as a turning point in modern history, marking the death of Western dominance, the end of an era of cheap oil-fuelled growth and the onset of a new age of uncertainty.
[end of article]
James P. writes:
Philip M. writes from England: