During the past few months, as one Arab military regime after another has been challenged or brought down, I have been reminded of a scene I witnessed in Khartoum decades ago.
I was interviewing the Sudanese President, General Jaafar al-Nimeiri, in his office when one of the long, red velvet curtains in the room caught fire.
There was only a small flame that could have easily been dealt with by pulling down the curtain and stamping on it.
But that is not what happened.
The president pressed a bell on his desk before starting to rush towards the door. Within seconds, a group of armed men poured in, presumably ready to gun down anyone in sight. Soon, I found myself in the courtyard of the palace with the president and everyone else while more armed troops poured in.
A small incident had been transformed into a military operation.
That showed a few things.
First, it was obvious that the general was living in constant fear.
He had been programmed to think that what might look like a small flame on a velvet curtain could be the start of a larger assassination plot.
Next, the military dictator knew only one way of dealing with an emergency: calling in the troops.
He had come to power at the point of a gun and believed that he could live only under the shadow of a gun.
Finally, the president’s entourage acted as a flock of sheep.
Once Nimeiri had ran into the courtyard, they all followed. None of them could think for himself, including a few with degrees from prestigious American universities.
At that time regimes headed by a military man appeared as typical in the so-called Arab world.
The British Middle East expert Peter Mansfield wrote: “The modern Arab state takes shape around the armed forces with the officer elite in the lead.”
The trend started with the 1952 military coup in Egypt and spread to Syria which had had its own experience with military rulers for a while. It then reached Iraq, Sudan, Yemen, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia and Somalia.
Thus, in the past six decades, more than four-fifth of Arabs have lived under a military regime of some sort.
The record of those regimes is both tragic and farcical.
In Egypt, the “Free Officers” led the country into its biggest military humiliation. Today, their discredited regime is trying to hang on to its privileges by embarking on Machiavellian manoeuvres.
Syria lives in a sate of semi-suffocation with the “officer elite” spending more time making money than “liberating” the Golan Heights.
Iraq, emerging from half a century of civil and foreign wars, is just starting to heal the wounds inflicted by successive military regimes, a process that might take decades.
After a quarter of a century of wars that have claimed millions of lives, Sudan is being split into two while its military ruler is officially indicted on charges of crimes against humanity.
Yemen has witnessed the assassination of two military rulers, a war of secession and, more recently, a series of tribal wars. Today, the very foundations of the Yemeni state are shaken, and the country’s future uncertain.
Algeria suffered decades of despotism marked by a civil war and the loss of at least a generation as a result of misguided economic policies dictated by the ruling military. It is only since the late 1990s that Algeria has started, ever so slowly, to move away from military dictatorship.
Today, Libya is in a state of civil war with an uncertain outcome.
An immensely wealthy country has been turned into a poor house. The ruling elite fouled its own nest because it dreamed it could nest in the west.
The Tunisian military regime came down with whimper. But successive generations of Tunisians are forced to pay the price of mistakes made by the despot and his minions.
As for Somalia, it has become a war zone and may never again return as a proper nation-state. Even the army that once ruled it has evaporated.
With few exceptions, for example Gamal Abdul-Nasser in Egypt and Abdul-Karim Qassem in Iraq who remained personally clean, the military ruler quickly transformed himself into a businessman presiding over immense fortunes.
This week, the London daily Evening Standard published a partial list of the Libyan dictator Muammar Kaddhafi’s business interests.
The colonel has a vast portfolio of real estate, industrial and banking shares, and hotel and travel holdings. And this is in London alone. Kaddhafi’s business empire is also present in Italy, France, Switzerland, Austria and Turkey. In addition, the colonel’s sons control a $200 billion “investment fund” on behalf of the Libyan state.
Needless to say, most of those funds are now frozen and may end up in the pockets of Western lawyers and governments.
Similar lists could be established of the business interests of Algerian, Egyptian and Sudanese officer elites, among others.
Western experts often speak of the supposed need to separate mosque and states in Arab countries. The real issue, however, is separating business and state.
Far from being the best suited system for Arabs, as Mansfield seemed to believe, the military regime was an aberration.
The Arab military elite copied it from Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Peron and other Latin American caudillos. Between the 1930s and 1970s military regimes were fashionable in much of the so-called Third World, and some Arabs simply followed that fashion.
With the fall of so many military regimes, and the impending end of the remaining ones, a chapter of Arab history comes to a close.
The question is: what system of government should replace the despotism that is, hopefully, gone for ever?
The challenge for Arab politicians, intellectuals and citizens at large is to look beyond what may be fashionable right now, and tackle the task of developing an alternative that, while rooted in their own tradition and vales, reflects the realities of the modern world.
Arabs have always grappled with the challenge of joining the modern world, a world in the formation of which they played no direct role, without losing parts of their persona they value most.
The events of the past few weeks show that Arabs cannot meet that challenge through military dictatorship.