It has been three months since Mohamed Bouazizi burned himself to death after the street seller felt humiliated by a woman municipal official who confiscated his wheelbarrow. The fire of revolt sparked by his death in Tunisia has raced through the brushwood of Arab autocracy. Each revolt provided the cue for the next, passing from Tunisia to Egypt, to Libya, to Yemen, to Bahrain. It is smouldering in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Morocco. Few leaders in the region have escaped its heat. Two of their number have fallen, a third in Yemen could be next.
Ten days ago, when Colonel Gaddafi was surrounded by opposition forces massing around Tripoli, the human tide of revolt seemed unstoppable. But now the autocrats are pushing back. After turning tanks, heavy artillery and combat aircraft against his own people, Gaddafi’s forces have advanced within 100 miles of Benghazi. Bahrain’s monarch, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, dropping all pretence of moderation, declared martial law and invited troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in.
Slowly but surely, the US is losing purchase and its foothold in the Middle East is slipping. Blindsided by the fall of dictators like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak who months ago were their staunchest allies, Washington has lurched from urging stability to praising those who upset it. The dithering and vacillation has angered both sides. The US has neither rushed to the defence of the revolution, but nor has it protected its former allies. So the Gulf states, for one, have taken matters into their own hands. The US defence secretary, Robert Gates, who was in Bahrain meeting the king on Saturday, received no indication that Saudi troops would go in to the kingdom they treat as their backyard 48 hours later. One would have thought he would, since the US fifth fleet is deployed there, but Washington is becoming irrelevant to regional calculations.
As Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister, wrote in this newspaper, what is happening is a delayed reaction to the revolution in eastern Europe in the late 80s. It was delayed by the calculation that democracy and security in the Middle East were polar opposites. Dictators were courted and given heavy bribes. Islamic conservatism was conflated with the cause of its deadliest rival in al-Qaida. Prof Davutoglu is right to say that, while each revolt must be led by the people of each country, there should be a regional response. His is a potentially important intervention in this debate. We should think about Turkey’s implicit offer to act as a mediator in the Libyan crisis carefully. As it is, the outgunned Libyan rebels face an unenviable choice between the possibility of accepting defeat at the hands of a tyrant, and turning to the former colonialist powers for help. The moment the US intervenes militarily, even under a UN banner, Gaddafi gets what he wants – to be the defender against the foreign aggressor. Libya’s rebels are unanimous in their opposition to a ground intervention.
Told that a no-fly zone would involve a prolonged bombing campaign first, they say: recognise the Libyan National Transitional Council as the legitimate authority, as France has done, and then it can buy arms legally. But recognition is about sovereignty and the council is far from securing that. There are military considerations, too, that could limit Gaddafi’s ability to retake and hold Benghazi: he would need to commit significant numbers of men which he does not have. A military stalemate looks more likely. If saving lives is the primary concern, Turkey’s offer to negotiate a ceasefire in Libya becomes more attractive by the day.
The Arab League is split and western military intervention risks hijacking a popular revolution. This is about forging what both dictators and former colonisers alike have denied the people: a pan-Arab identity. To succeed, they needs to do it on their own.