The courage of Arab protesters, lies of the war hawks and bowling bliss

Arabs across the Middle East are standing up to their bullies. Also, how neocons are taking credit f

The uprisings in the Arab world ought to be humbling for westerners for several reasons. Would we take to the streets, unarmed, to pro­test against tyranny, knowing that the regime was capable of beating, arresting, imprisoning and torturing us - and, at worst, gunning us down? Arabs were long branded as peculiarly docile and apathetic but many Europeans, faced with fascist and communist tyrannies, were for many years no less passive.

Today, we are free to criticise our politicians. Only in the workplace do we sometimes face the test of standing up to unaccountable and
arbitrary authority, albeit without fear of physical reprisals. I would not compare the former Royal Bank of Scotland boss Fred Goodwin to Hosni Mubarak, still less to Muammar Gaddafi. The most that the likes of Goodwin could do was to intimidate their employees, cut their bonuses and sack them, probably with compensation. Staff, if they spoke out against business practices that threatened the jobs and savings of millions, merely risked their careers in banking. That was enough to keep them working quietly at their desks, though many had already made substantial fortunes.

Many of the Arab rulers are bullies on a monstrous scale, with heavy armoury to support them. Across the Middle East, Arabs are saying that they won't be bullied any more. We are all occasionally tested by bullies, though they can usually do us far less damage than a Mubarak
or Gaddafi. Our record against them is nothing to be proud of.

Mid East cause for neo-confidence

Then there are the neocons, who are now claiming credit for the spread of democratic sentiment in the Middle East. Opponents of the Iraq invasion, they keep saying, thought that Arabs were incapable of democracy.

The cheek of it. The neocons' contribution to the democratic cause, from their safe, well-upholstered havens in London and Washington, was to send (or support sending) a heavily equipped army to drop bombs and rockets, killing thousands of Iraqis while minimising western casualties.

The case against war was that democracy should not be imposed through force of arms and that Arabs would rise and overthrow their oppressors in their own good time, as they are now doing. The Iraq war strengthened the anti-democratic, Islamist cause and allowed al-Qaeda, at least temporarily, to establish itself in a country where it previously lacked even a foothold. The anti-western feeling created by the war made it harder for Middle Eastern democrats to seek support from Britain and America. The Americans seem not to have learned this lesson. Washington, advises the New York Times, should "help organise voter rolls and monitor the election" in Tunisia. I cannot think of anything more likely to kill Tunisian democracy.

Behind closed doors, please

When tyrants order peaceful demonstrations to be put down, western politicians and dip­lomats call it "unacceptable". William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, used the word in his comments on Gaddafi's actions in Libya. It seems a curiously weak way to describe bombing and shooting one's own citizens.

What it means, I suspect, is that it's quite acceptable for dictators to torture, beat and execute people in dark prison cells in Cairo, Tunis or Tripoli. Then we can continue to do business with them as usual and welcome their sons to smart London parties attended by Prince Andrew or Peter Mandelson. It becomes unacceptable only when they do bad things in public, in full view of cameras.

Taking the PSI

One aspect of David Cameron's plan to allow the private sector to take over any public service is not widely appreciated. The UK's public services industry (PSI) is already one of the most developed in the world, with revenues approaching £100bn. It is, therefore, in a strong position to bid for contracts overseas (because, it should be added, foreign firms can bid for contracts here).

Serco, which I mentioned last week as a preferred bidder for the Community Payback scheme, operates the Dubai metro, processes some US immigration records, provides services to schools in several countries and runs prisons in Australia. A report in 2008, carried out for Labour's über-Blairite business secretary John Hutton by the US economist DeAnne Julius, pressed ministers to support such companies abroad by "maintaining and encouraging a dynamic and thriving PSI in the UK".

Cameron has clearly heeded her advice. Perhaps, as he tears apart our public services, allowing various shysters to run off with billions of pounds of taxpayers' money, we should be cheered that the same vandalism will be inflicted on foreigners, thus boosting British export earnings and British jobs.

Brief bouncer

Cricket's World Cup, lasting more than six weeks, strikes me as an absurdly protracted event. England's itinerary, which has them flying back and forth across the Indian subcontinent, could serve as a trial for human beings' ability to withstand a journey to Mars.

But one thing that I look forward to is fast bowling. International cricket programmes are now so physically demanding that very few such bowlers are left in the longer form of the game. Australia's Shaun Tait and Brett Lee seem to be among those whose bodies can withstand only one-day matches, requiring them to bowl, at most, ten overs twice a week. Unfortunately, they are restricted, even more in one-day than five-day matches, in their use of bouncers. But a fast bowler in full cry is still one of the game's finest sights and I shall enjoy it, however briefly.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 28 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Toppling the tyrants