Listening to lifelong regime toadies belatedly call for the seizure of Mubarak's assets or calibrate the precise moment when it's safe to demand the overthrow of the strongman you've happily served all your life, I'm reminded of the Hakim of Bahrain's visit to London for the Queen's Coronation in 1953. Late in the evening, at the end of the banquet, the diminutive Sheikh Salman came upon the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, sitting at the bottom of a staircase, and attempted to ingratiate himself with a view to winning support for some land claim Bahrain had against Qatar. It had been a bibulous night and Sir Winston was in no mood to discuss the fine points of Arabian territorial disputes.
"Tell him," the PM instructed David Weir, Britain's Political Resident in Bahrain and "gentleman in attendance" to the non-English-speaking Hakim, "tell him that we never desert our friends." Pause. "Unless we have to."
As Ben Ali and Mubarak and Gaddafi have discovered, their "friends" have reached the point when they "have to". Nothing personal. That's just the way it is. Insofar as any comparisons to Europe in 1989 are valid, it's Romania: The most perilous moment for any dictatorship is when the strongman's flunkeys conclude he's outlived his usefulness.
Since Sheikh Salman's day, the Hakims have upgraded themselves to Emirs and then Kings. What comes next? In Bahrain, a Sunni royal family rules a largely Shia population. By the time the dust settles, what emerges in the Gulf monarchies is likely to be regimes far friendlier to Iran, if not in fact wholly owned Iranian subsidiaries. What emerges in Egypt is likely to be a regime far more hostile to Israel. There are different local factors in play from the Mahgreb to the Shatt al-Arab, but if you want a shorthand for the region as a whole, think of it this way: It's the dawn of the post-western Middle East.
There are two phases to recent Arab history. The modern Middle East was an Anglo-French concoction, cooked up by London and Paris somewhat haphazardly after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In the waning of British and French imperial power after World War Two, Washington and Moscow stepped into the breach, in many cases replacing sputtering monarchies with strongmen of a secular pan-Arab nationalist bent.
Say what you like about dynastic rulers but generally they're beyond ideology: in a sense, a king is his own ideology. When you replace an hereditary monarch with a designated sonofabitch, it's easy to get misled into thinking he represents some force larger than himself. As we now know, Mubarak represented nobody and nothing: Both "Nasserism", the ideology that propped up the regime in its first two decades, and the region's broader post-war secular nationalism were fictions, and unsustainable ones. An hour or so after the dictator fell, I said to Megyn Kelly on Fox that we were witnessing "the unraveling of the American Middle East".
That's looking at it from our point of view. Looking at it from theirs, the regimes are belatedly aligning themselves with demographic reality. Across the last half-century, the chancelleries of the great powers invested their effort in maintaining "stability": The result was that governments were superficially stable while their populations wholly transformed - and a huge chasm opened up between an ever more Islamic populace and the regimes they're ruled by. Say what you like about Mubarak but he wasn't into female genital mutilation. Unfortunately for him, his people were - or at any rate the menfolk were. So he banned it. Because he's a dictator, and what he says goes, right? And the net result of that ban is that, on the day he fell, precisely 91 per cent of the country's women were estimated to have undergone FGM: Long before the "Facebook Revolution", Egypt voted with its clitorises.
Likewise, say what you like about Colonel Gaddafi but a guy who hires as bodyguards his own personal detachment of Austin Powers fembots is unlikely to be hung up on the small print of this or that hadith. The trajectory we're now on has less to do with "social media" than with Monday's fatwa by Imam Qaradawi, Egypt's Khomeini wannabe, calling for the assassination of Gaddafi.
The eminent scholar dismisses the Gaddafi clan as "swords of pre-Islamic ignorance" - which shows you how he regards what's underway: The anciens régimes were "pre-Islamic", which means that what follows will be ...more Islamic.
Last week I wrote about the laziness of inevitablism - the assumption that social progress moves only in one direction. I see that The Ottawa Citizen's Dan Gardner, a man strangely obsessed for one so hunky with trying to attract my attention, is now mocking me for waxing nostalgic for the Egyptian monarchy:
Here's Mark Steyn pining for King Farouk. Cheering on democracy in the Arab world? That's so 2005.
I'll stand by that - if only because the messy fledgling multiparty Iraq of 2005 has far more in common with Egypt under Farouk than it does with Egypt under Mubarak. The Kingdom of Egypt in the period between 1922 and 1952 was flawed and ramshackle and corrupt, but it got closer to a functioning, pluralist society than anything in the 60 years since. For example, in 1923, Egypt's first full year as a sovereign state, the country's Minister of Finance was a man called Joseph Cattaui, a Member of Parliament and a Jew.
Try to imagine that now: a Jew serving as an Arab Muslim nation's Finance Minister - or even getting elected as an obscure backbench MP. Sounds like something from a Give-peace-a-chance multifaith fantasy. But it actually happened - and then it stopped happening, and then it became inconceivable for it to happen ever again under any plausible scenario.
The Egyptian royal house (descended from Albanians) was nobody's idea of a punctilious constitutional monarchy, and Jews there had a rough couple of years in the 1940s. But the Kingdom of Egypt was a better deal than anything that followed. The CIA thought so little of Farouk that their plan to depose him was codenamed "Operation Fat Fucker". Ha-ha. The fuckers they replaced him with had the last laugh. Nasser rounded up Jews for "Zionist activities", removed them from Parliament, confiscated their businesses, and closed down their newspapers. Do you think Imam Qaradawi's minded to see a Jewish Finance Minister back in Cairo? Alas, there are no Jews left now - but there are still plenty of Copts to stick it to.
Colonel Gaddafi? On seizing power in 1969, he immediately canceled any debts owed to Libyan Jews and confiscated all their property. A postwar Jewish population of 40,000 fell on his watch to zero: The last Libyan Jew, Esmeralda Meghnagi, died in 2002, and with her one of the oldest Jewish communities on earth. And in much of the Middle East - including, disgracefully, the de facto American protectorate of Iraq - the Christian community is headed the same way.
The Middle East got worse. The Anglo-French-installed monarchies of the mid-20th century were less bad than the Russo-American-backed dictators of the late 20th century. As for the early 21st, the new Middle East will be friendlier to the Muslim Brotherhood and friendlier to Iran - and less friendly to western interests than at any time since the discovery of oil.
"We never desert our friends. Unless we have to."
And by the time we had to, they'd been comprehensively deserted by massive sociocultural demographic factors the realpolitik crowd gave barely a thought to. And, absent a strategy for battling ideology and ideas, we'll just have to live with whatever's next.