It's been fascinating to watch the coverage of the popular unrest or "uprisings" across the Arab world in recent times as it says a lot about the perception of protest and the realpolitik of supporting dictators.
Tunisia isn't that important so we could cheer on the protesters who toppled Ben Ali last month without really thinking too hard about who the protesters were and what agenda they had. Their demands seemed reasonable and they behaved reasonably for the most part. The "bad guys" - the Police and Army - eventually backed down and the President was forced into exile.
Then came Egypt and things got complicated. Egypt is a big and significant country and Mubarak was a "friend" - he had moved away from the more pro-Soviet line of Nasser and Sadat and had become a valued ally of the USA and the West. Yet he was a dictator who had cracked down ruthlessly on previous episodes of discontent. During the Cold war, the West had backed a number of unpleasant dictators whose sole benefit was that they were anti-Communist such as Mobutu in Zaire and Marcos in the Phillipines. The end of the Cold War meant these thugs had outlived their usefulness but Mubarak became in turn a bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism and his principal political opponents were more often than not perceived as being Islamicist in nature.
This time, the uprising has been on a much larger scale and has appeared to be a mucvh broader-based movement. In some respects, it has been a conservative uprising (ironically, because American conservatives like Glenn Beck have been the biggest fear-mongers) as it has preserved the cronyism and corruption of the Army against the dynastic and possibly reformist ideas of Mubarak's son Gamal and more junior officers. It seems probable little will change in Egypt - the Army will still be in charge and eventually some new charismatic figure will emerge.
Now, we see trouble erupting in Libya and here, because we are dealing with Gaddafi, we can seemingly universally hail the protesters as "heroes" though I have no idea who they are, what you want and who they represent. Shots have been fired and people killed and again there's a dynastic element here with Gaddafii's son seemingly set to take over.
Bahrain is more problematic for the West - the island is strategically vital and its ruling family has strong connections to Britain. However, the minority Sunni have dominated the majority Shi'a for some time using a system that is a form of economic and political apartheid more akin to Ulster in the 1950s than a modern state.
The problem for the West is that the Shi'a in Bahrain are of the same religious grouping as those across the Persian Gulf in Iran and the fear is that the reasonable demands of the Bahrani protesters now are a cover for a more Islamist pro-Iranian agenda which would be seen as destabilising in the West (and the fear of that destablisation has already caused a spike in oil prices). The attempts of the Bahrani rulers to quash the protest by military means on Friday appear to have backfired disastrously and it may be that the radicalisation of the protest has now pushed the agenda beyond mere internalo change and possibly toward a sea change involving the end of the rule of the Sunni royal family.
Revolutions or popular protest have a patchy record - we cheered on the anti-Communist protesters in Prague, Berlin, Bucharest and Beijing in 1989 but neither Czechoslovakia nor East Germany survived the revolution, the Chinese protesters were crushed and in Romania, the dictator was killed but his cronies took over for a while.
Revolutions aren't either pleasant or clear-cut as history shows us. The American revolution ushered in a protracted period of internal conflict, first with the British and later between the States. The French Revolution led to Napoleon Bonaparte, the Russian Revolution to Stalin and the Chinese Revolution to Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution.
That's NOT an argument in favour of dictatorship but a recognition that initially reasonable demands for limited or unspecified change can easily be corrupted or radicalised by events. Those in the US who fear any kind of popular discontent as a backdoor for militant Islamism do so from the luxury of a stable, democratic and fair society. To live in a society without the freedom of expression is to seek that freedom as a basic demand.
As a liberal, I find dictatorship of any kind repellant and democracies preferrable even if the Government chosen freely and fairly by the voters isn't one that I would like. The freedom to choose and the upholding of that right must come before the realpolitik of having friendly Governments in key parts of the world. It may well mean that the West will have problems in its future relations with the likes of Bahrain but it might also mean a new beginning for Libya and Yemen. It also forces us to confront the policies by which we have armed and supported oppressors and dictators mainly because they are our oppressors and dictators.