“No people ever was and remained free, but because it was determined to be so…”

I have watched the movements in Arab states, like every other politically conscious citizen of the world with awe, anticipation – and, at moments, envy. What must it feel like to have stood in Tahrir Square on the night Mubarak went? I have a feeling that those Egyptians were probably closer to democracy – however momentarily – on that night than any polite reform of first-past-the-post here will ever leave me. Impossible not to be uplifted by popular sovereignty in action.
I haven’t, however, felt moved to write about these movements. These aren’t my revolutions, and it would seem glib and intrusive to claim anything more than observer status. There are enough eloquent and passionate Arab spokespersons. Shame and anger at Western governments’ slow and miserable calls for “stability” and “restraint” – yes, I feel that – but I’m afraid that my youthful belief that Western governments have ever been interested in democratic empowerment of the people died around the time of the Iraq War, and it’s hard to be roused into action by cynicism.
Tonight, though, I feel compelled to comment. Not on the main story – which tonight is Gadaffi’s Umbrella. In fact, it’s a couple of contrasting sideshows which have caught my attention. Firstly, the West continues its romance with the heroic asylum seeker, as two pilots land in Malta having refused to fire on protesters in Tripoli. Yet at the same time, it would seem that fear of illegal migrants, those demons of the modern age, provides at least partial rationale for why our governments shake their heads and talk gravely of stability and smooth transitions.
Since Ben Ali fell, Tunisians have crossed the Mediterranean in record numbers – almost certainly seeking jobs — one might, in a more generous mood, call them livelihoods. Lampedusa, the notorious Italian reception centre, is overflowing. And Libya is already well-known as a staging point for African migrants journeying northwards to Europe. “Fortress Europe” is under siege – revolution brings an immigration crisis.
But isn’t there something truly repugnant about Europe’s instinct for self-preservation, with ministers warning that with regime collapse will come new ‘unimaginable’ waves of migrants? It reminds me how complicit we are in these particular oppressions, even if we prefer arms contracts and migration management to the messy business of massacres.
Oh, it’s a modern fairytale all right. We built our fortress and we surrounded it by ogres. And now the villagers are in revolt. Demanding rights we like to talk about — but are less keen on recognizing when those rights are in conflict with our own privileged positions.
So instead we lionise two pilots – but ignore the fact that building a system allowing regularised migration of young, jobless Arab professionals may well be the best defence against the kind of Islamism that’s supposed to terrify us all and which justifies supporting aging Arab dictators.
Undoubtedly, the two Libyan pilots in Malta showed enormous courage in disobeying orders and refuting the “banality of evil”.They deserve our admiration and our protection. But let’s not pretend that offering them asylum says anything generous about Maltese or European “compassion”. It’s just one more hypocrisy at the heart of our liberalism. Yes, we’ll let them in — but we’ll make sure we keep the rest out. And I suspect we’ll keep talking about “bad migrants” and “good dictators” without ever admitting that one is the consequence of the other.
Other views on the West and Arab revolution: