For more than 60 years, dictators and despots have held sway over the Middle East. Aided and abetted by the west, they have denied fundamental political and economic rights with little fear of reprisal. But, as the inspiring protests of recent weeks show, time is running out for the strongmen of the Arab world. Since the fall of the former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, the Bahraini royal family has agreed to formal talks with the opposition; Morocco and Algeria have been forced to suppress pro-democracy rallies; and Iran's courageous Green Movement has held its largest protests since the rigged election of 2009. Most dramatically, in a final effort to prop up his crumbling regime, the Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, turned mercenaries on defenceless civilians with terrifying and uncertain consequences.
In each country, the revolt against autocracy has taken a distinctive form but, as Olivier Roy, one of the world's leading scholars of the Muslim and Arab worlds, writes on page 24, the protesters share several characteristics. They are non-violent, pluralist, nationalist and, above all, democratic. The protests are a challenge not just to the region's despots but also to those western governments that have courted the Middle East's tyrants in a cynical attempt to promote "stability" over democracy. The west's Faustian pact with Colonel Gaddafi was not based on any improvement in his human rights record. On the contrary, the man to whom Tony Blair offered the "hand of friendship" in 2004 only increased his persecution of the Libyan opposition.
We concede that a purely altruistic foreign policy is neither possible nor desirable. Few recall that the former Labour foreign secretary Robin Cook spoke not of an "ethical foreign policy" but of a foreign policy with an "ethical dimension". Yet too often Britain has failed even this modest test. It is one thing to maintain diplomatic relations with dictatorships; it is another to embrace them altogether.
The coalition government has been surprised by events in the Middle East. To date, its foreign policy has been based on little more than the objective of promoting trade - an approach accurately described by the former foreign secretary David Miliband as "low-grade mercantilism". Mr Miliband was impressive in the role and, before Labour's election defeat, was at least evolving a credibly post-Blair, pro-Europe and multilateralist foreign policy. His repeated references to a global "civilian surge", based on the desire for people to "shape their own lives", were prescient.
His successor, William Hague, hitherto regarded as one of the more able Conservative politicians, has struggled to achieve such coherence. He used his first major speech as Foreign Secretary to speak of the coalition's efforts to "elevate links with the Gulf" and of "strengthening our ties across the board". There was no reference to the need for democratic reform in the Arab world or to the denial of human rights.
In his speech to the Kuwaiti National Assembly on 22 February, David Cameron appeared to acknowledge the limits of the policy so far when he declared that "denying people their basic rights does not preserve stability, rather the reverse". But the Prime Minister's laudable words were undermined by his decision to travel to the region with eight of Britain's leading arms manufacturers. To his critics, Mr Cameron replied: "A properly regulated trade in defence is nothing we should be ashamed of." Yet the presence of Gerald Howarth, a defence minister, at an arms fair in Abu Dhabi - where British companies sold tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets for the purposes of "crowd control" - was something to be ashamed of. Rather than delaying action until the moment governments open fire on their own people, as happened in Bahrain and Libya, ministers should declare an immediate arms embargo.
By giving long-standing support to the region's dictatorships, Britain has accumulated enormous obligations to the people of the Middle East. If it is to avoid being caught on the wrong side of history, our government must side unambiguously with those fighting for long-repressed democratic freedoms.