Well, as Herodotus says, my business is to record what people say – but I am by no means bound to believe it. I am the last person to overstate the significance of an afternoon’s vox pop on one Arab street. Only a fool would fail to recognise that this is a moment of danger, as well as opportunity. The path forward for Tunisia and Egypt is far less clear than it was for east European countries – and there is no warm, safe house of EU membership beckoning at the end of the road.
In the confusion of a new semi-freedom, some very nasty old worms will come out of the woodwork. I got a small taste of this from a young Moroccan sitting at a bus stop here. Apropos nothing in particular, he started telling me that “all the problems in the world are the fault of the Jews”. The prophet Muhammad had a problem with the Jews, he explained, and ever since the Jews have been making trouble for the Muslims. He worships at a mosque where the chief imam is from – how did you guess? – Saudi Arabia.
If Spain has no strategy, France has had something worse: a bad one. In the pursuit of a shortsighted, soi-disant realism, its political and business elites have been as thick as thieves with the rulers of North Africa. And, as WikiLeaks has helped a wider public to understand, when we say thieves, in the context of north African Arab rulers, we mean thieves.
As for Europe’s other major Mediterranean power, Italy, its prime minister’s deep personal interest in Arab affairs has just landed him in court – to stand trial for allegedly paying to have sex with a then under-aged Arab nightclub dancer called Karima el-Mahroug.
More seriously, all of Europe’s leaders are preoccupied with failing banks, public spending cuts and the existential crisis of the eurozone. A farsighted Spanish policymaker tells me that what we need to offer across the Mediterranean is “a Marshall Plan with a strong political component”.
So on a cold-eyed analysis, you can end up as sceptical about the likely European response to the “Arab 1989” as about the outcome of the thing itself. But if the EU does not now come up with a generous, imaginative and strategic response to what is happening on the Mediterranean’s southern shore, then that failure will one day come back to haunt us on all the Arab streets of Europe.