Arab dictators were not the only ones to have been taken aback by the scale and speed of events in the region. Their allies were also caught off guard. The changes were simply "too much, too fast", as a stunned US official put it. From being the sole actors and directors on the stage, Europe and the US, along with the various despots, found themselves suddenly reduced to mere spectators, and fearful of the future.
On the road near Benghazi ... the allies' real contest is over who calls the shots and dominates Libya's economy. (Photograph: Suhaib Salem/REUTERS)
Perhaps it is not surprising that those who had long been used to dictating the course of events there would not simply accept a new script written by millions of ordinary people. After the revolution's resounding successes in Tunisia and Egypt, the old players soon found new ways of sneaking back on to the set.
Muammar Gaddafi's model of the iron-fisted ruler who fights to the last drop emboldened some dictators. While Tunisia and Egypt presented Arabs with an inspiring model of change at minimal cost, Libya stirred hopes among their rulers that they might cling on to power through naked violence and the threat of civil war. So in Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh has unleashed his thugs to massacre protesters in Taghyeer Square. In Syria Bashar al-Assad has opened fire on demonstrators in Deraa and Latakia, while in Jordan, next door, security services have brutally dispersed a peaceful picket demanding reform. Gaddafi has inspired fellow despots to shift fear to the people through the use of terror.
The Libyan quagmire was an opportunity for their Euro-American allies, too. It enabled them to breathe life into the corpse of "humanitarian interventionism", using it as a way of riding the wave of change and redirecting its course to their benefit. As the possibility of salvaging a Gaddafi confined to Tripoli and western Libya receded – and with it the chance of protecting their huge business contracts – the international powers shifted positions, joining the rebels' camp instead. The supporters of despotism and corruption recast themselves as makers of change and democratisation.
Backstage, however, the French, British, Italians, and Americans are working to promote their own men among the rebels in preparation for the post-Gaddafi era. The real contest is over who calls the shots in the new Libya and who dominates its economy.
With the loss of Ben Ali and Mubarak, western powers suffered a loss of the stability implemented after the second world war, which depended on propped-up dictators, political stagnation and arms deals. It was only when this stability was threatened by street protests that the west began to advocate democracy. But while shouting "Revolution!" in Libya and Syria, the west is quietly backing old allies in Jordan, Bahrain, Oman, the Emirates, Morocco and Yemen, lest the uprising should expand to Saudi Arabia, its chief ally in the region. The logic seems to be "a friend is only a friend while salvageable".
But the west is not only deploying hard military power in its attempt to control the process of change. It is directing its economic arm to that end too, through the World Bank and the IMF. David Cameron, Silvio Berlusconi and Nicolas Sarkozy are not the only ones busy remarketing themselves as reformers. Recently the president of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, addressed a group of Arab activists praising change in the region as a "striking moment engendering its own momentum". Hearing him speak of the problems facing "people in north Africa and the Middle East", one could have mistaken him for an innocent, independent analyst with no relation whatsoever to the economic crises with which these regions are struggling.
This is part of a campaign to conceal a fundamental fact about what is happening: that people are not only rebelling against an internationally backed political authoritarianism but against the economic model imposed by the IMF, World Bank and, in the case of Tunisia and Egypt, the EU's structural reform programmes. Millions have been left to fend for themselves as state-owned firms have been sold to foreign investors and a cabal of local partners: corruption flourished as a result.
In Tunisia, the first Arab country to sign the Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreement in 1995, more than 67% of publicly owned firms have been privatised, while in Egypt the number stands at 164 out of 314. This went with the drowning of these countries' economies in debt, thus holding them hostage to handouts from the US and the EU.
In Egypt, public borrowing rose to 89% of the country's GDP ($183.7bn in June 2010), much of which was spent on food exports as the economy was forced to shift from agriculture and manufacturing to tourism and services. And as national wealth was looted by the nouveau riche, many have found themselves unable to meet their basic needs, living in overcrowded cities and shanty towns and crushed by shrinking salaries, rocketing prices and plummeting living conditions. Their despair is such that many board death boats to cross the Mediterranean, and some go as far as setting themselves aflame in protest against the daily violation of their souls and bodies.
When the Tunisian people took the world by surprise, those who felt threatened by that uprising were quick to talk of "exceptions". First we were initially warned that Egypt was not Tunisia, then that Libya was not Tunisia or Egypt, and now that Yemen and Syria are not Tunisia, Egypt, or Libya. But in reality the region is fundamentally interconnected. Arabs not only share a geography and language but common crises and aspirations. Though divided into 22 states, statelets, republics and monarchies, Arabs share the misfortune of living under the harshest forms of government, and are united by their yearning for democratisation. With the exception of some Gulf sheikhdoms that enjoy large oil resources and a tiny demography, most of their countries are plagued by a bleak record of economic failure and corresponding social crises.
The story of the Arab revolution is not only to be found in prisons, torture chambers and political trials, but in this painful trail of economic and social misery. Ben Ali, Mubarak and their political backers in Washington, London and Paris are culpable – and so are the World Bank, IMF and WTO. In a way, they are the real makers of the Great Arab Revolution.