Many Hail Events in the Middle East as a Bright New Dawn. but Revolutions Have a Nasty Habit of Kicking Naive Idealists in the Teeth

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Byline: by Dominic Sandbrook

EVEN by the violent standards of Middle Eastern autocrats, Colonel Gaddafi has long cut a brutally capricious figure. But while nobody who remembers the murder of WPC Yvonne Fletcher or the appalling slaughter at Lockerbie will mourn Gaddafi's downfall, this year's tumultuous events in North Africa could mark a shocking and seismic shift in the balance of power.

We are at a hinge moment in world history. As the Arab revolutions have shown, the old certainties are cracking apart.

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 neoconservatives 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. 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.

Violence 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.

And eventually, as the French politician Pierre Vergniaud -- who ended up on the guillotine -- famously put it, the revolution devours its own children. Of course, we should applaud the men and women in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Their courage has inspired the world; their defiance is a reminder of the unquenchable reserves of the human spirit.

As Mr Cameron noted this week, it is grotesquely patronising to imagine that 'Arabs or Muslims can't do democracy'. And given our historic associations with the region -- Egypt was an informal British protectorate until the Fifties -- our leaders must do their best to support the new governments.

All the same, we must tread carefully. The West's long-standing support for the Arab dictators, from Tony Blair's distasteful rapprochement with Colonel Gaddafi to the Americans' $1.5billion ([pounds sterling]930million) annual subsidy to the former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, means we are far from being flavour of the month on the streets of Tripoli and Cairo.

And if Washington and Whitehall are in danger of slipping into romantic giddiness, they should take a long, hard look at recent history in the region. …