The fate of the Arabs will be settled in Egypt, not Libya by Seamus Milne
Barely two months since the triumphant overthrow of the Tunisian dictator that detonated the Arab revolution, a western view is taking hold that it's already gone horribly wrong. In January and February, TV screens across the world were filled with exhilarating images of hundreds of thousands of peaceful demonstrators, women and men, braving Hosni Mubarak's goons in Cairo's Tahrir square while Muslims and Christians stood guard over each other as they prayed.
A few weeks on and reports from the region are dominated by the relentless advance of Colonel Gaddafi's forces across Libya, as one rebel stronghold after another is crushed. Meanwhile Arab dictators are falling over each other to beat and shoot protesters, while Saudi troops have occupied Bahrain to break the popular pressure for an elected government. In Egypt itself, 11 people were killed in sectarian clashes between Christians and Muslims last week and women protesters were assaulted by misogynist thugs in Tahrir Square.
Increasingly, US and European politicians and media hawks are insisting it's all because the west has shamefully failed to intervene militarily in support of the Libyan opposition. The Times on Wednesday blamed Barack Obama for snuffing out a "dawn of hope" by havering over whether to impose a no-fly zone in Libya.
But Saudi Arabia's dangerous quasi-invasion of Bahrain is a reminder that Libya is very far from being the only place where hopes are being stifled. The west's closest Arab ally, which has declared protest un-Islamic, bans political parties and holds an estimated 8,000 political prisoners, has sent troops to bolster the Bahraini autocracy's bloody resistance to democratic reform.
Underlying the Saudi provocation is a combustible cocktail of sectarian and strategic calculations. Bahrain's secular opposition to the Sunni ruling family is mainly supported by the island's Shia majority. The Saudi regime fears both the influence of Iran in a Shia-dominated Bahrain and the infection of its own repressed Shia minority – concentrated in the eastern region, centre of the largest oil reserves in the world.
Considering that both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, home to the United States fifth fleet, depend on American support, the crushing of the Bahraini democracy movement or the underground Saudi opposition should be a good deal easier for the west to fix than the Libyan maelstrom.
But neither the US nor its intervention-hungry allies show the slightest sign of using their leverage to help the people of either country decide their own future. Instead, as Bahrain's security forces tear-gassed and terrorised protesters, the White House merely repeated the mealy-mouthed call it made in the first weeks of the Egyptian revolution for "restraint on all sides".
It's more than understandable that the Libyan opposition now being ground down by superior firepower should be desperate for outside help. Sympathy for their plight runs deep in the Arab world and beyond. But western military intervention – whether in the form of arms supplies or Britain and France's favoured no-fly zone – would, as the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan argues, be "totally counter-productive" and "deepen the problem".
Experience in Iraq and elsewhere suggests it would prolong the war, increase the death toll, lead to demands for escalation and risk dividing the country. It would also be a knife at the heart of the Arab revolution, depriving Libyans and the people of the region of ownership of their own political renaissance.
Arab League support for a no-fly zone has little credibility, dominated as it still is by despots anxious to draw the US yet more deeply into the region; while the three Arab countries lined up to join the military effort – Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE – are themselves among the main barriers to the process of democratisation that intervention would be supposed to strengthen.
Genuinely independent regional backing from, say, Egypt would be another matter, as would Erdogan's proposal of some sort of negotiated solution: whatever the outcome of the conflict there will be no return of the status quo ante for the Gaddafi regime.
In any case, the upheaval now sweeping the Arab world is far bigger than the struggle in Libya – and that process has only just begun. Any idea that all the despots would throw in the towel as quickly as Zin al-Abidine Ben Ali and Mubarak was always a pipedream. They may well be strengthened in their determination to use force by events in Libya. And the divisions of ethnicity, sect and tribe in each society will be ruthlessly exploited by the regimes and their foreign sponsors to try to hold back the tide of change.
But across the region people insist they have lost their fear. There is a widespread expectation that the Yemeni dictator, Ali Abdallah Saleh, will be the next to fall – where violently suppressed street protests have been led by a woman, the charismatic human rights campaignerTawakul Karman, in what is a deeply conservative society.
And where regimes make cosmetic concessions, such as in Jordan, they find they are only fuelling further demands. As the Jordanian Islamist opposition leader, Rohile Gharaibeh, puts it: "Either we achieve democracy under a constitutional monarchy or there will be no monarchy at all".
The key to the future of the region, however, remains Egypt. It is scarcely surprising if elements of the old regime try to provoke social division, or attempts are made to co-opt and infiltrate the youth movements that played the central role in the uprising, or that the army leadership wants to put a lid on street protests and strikes.
But the process of change continues. In the past fortnight demonstrators have occupied and closed secret police headquarters, and the Mubarak-appointed prime minister has been dumped – and Egyptians are now preparing to vote on constitutional amendments that would replace army rule with an elected parliament and president within six months.
There is a fear among some activists that the revolution may only put a democratic face on the old system. But the political momentum remains powerful. A popular democratic regime in Cairo would have a profound impact on the entire region. Nothing is guaranteed, but all the signs are that sooner or later, the dominoes will fall.