The second Arab awakening of modern history — the first was the Arab revolt against the Ottoman empire — requires some new definitions, perhaps even some new words in at least the English language.
And some new calculator that will instantly register the old age of dictators and the growing army of the young. If you survive into senility, you can enter the category of great political criminals of contemporary history.
My Maghreb colleague Béchir Ben Yahmed has pointed out that after 42 years in power, Muammar Gaddafi is up there with the worst of them. Kim Il-Sung registered 46 years, Saddam a mere 35 years. Mubarak scored 32 years in the dictatorship stakes, Sékou Touré of Guinea 26 years, Franco of Spain and Salazar of Portugal, the same number.
Ben Yahmed suggests that in the violent case of Libya, we are dealing not so much with a revolution as with “revolutionary anarchism on the basis of tribalism”, since Libya may be in the process of breaking apart. I'm not sure I agree. Gaddafi, indeed, has become a kind of ‘recidivist’ although, even if the opposition has cried victory too soon, Gaddafi is now ruling only a half-Gaddafi state which can only be temporary.
And we will have to redefine the nature of the act which lit the proverbial — and the real — match: the immolation by fire of Mohamed Bouazizi who, crushed by both the state and its corruption and then slapped by a policewoman, chose death to the continuation of qahr — which in English might be translated as “total powerlessness”.
He preferred, as Tunisian psychoanalyst Fethi Benslama has remarked, “annihilation over a life of nothingness”. Bouazizi, however, will not join the list of al-Qaida's favourite martyrs. He took no enemy lives with him; his jihad was one of despair, which is certainly not encouraged by the Koran. He provided proof that a suicide can unwittingly produce a revolution and become a martyr for an oppressed people rather than for God. His death gave him no assurance of paradise; thus his act must be regarded as politically more important than that of the suicide bomber. He was, in fact, an anti-kamikaze.
In a year in which the very last ‘Rue Pétain’ has been deleted in rural France, it's only fair to say that an awful lot of Gaddafi's fawning tributes are going to have to be torn down in his rump state once it falls.
And there are plenty of Mubarak Streets, Mubarak Stadiums and Mubarak Hospitals to be renamed. Economist Mohamed el-Dahshan has referred to the “demubarakisation” of Egypt; I suppose all the Mubarak Streets must now become ‘The Street of 25th January’ — the start of the latest Egyptian revolution — and I fear that if the 80% Shias of Bahrain one day govern their country, there will have to be quite a lot of dekhalifaisation. And in Aden, desalehisation. And in Libya, degaddafiisation has already begun.
But I hope the new revolutionaries of the Arab world don't start, in their fervour, erasing the identity of whole cities. Benghazi should not become ‘The City of Eleven Martyrs’ — as Stalingrad became the pathetic Volgograd — nor Tobruk retitled.
My favourite redefinition appeared in a wonderful cartoon in the Tunisian daily La Presse this week, after Beji Caid Essebsi was named prime minister. “In my opinion,” says the cartoon Tunisian, “our real prime minister is called Facebook!”