The Arab revolt - Lives given trying to win the vote

THE contrast between Ireland and Libya could not have been greater yesterday.

We were free to vote for a new Government but the defiant and plainly insane dictator Col Muammar Gaddafi unleashed Eastern European and African mercenaries to terrify and murder his own people. Gaddafi and his supporters seem prepared to use whatever means they can pay for to prolong his 42-year autocracy even if that means civil war. Already reports indicate thousands may have been killed or injured as the crackdown escalates “alarmingly”, UN human rights head Navi Pillay has said.

The strengthening international consensus to punish Col Gaddafi may not be enough to save the lives of all of those brave enough to join the Arab revolt against decrepit dictatorships sweeping the region.

As the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs works to evacuate Irish citizens the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said the EU must consider sanctions and an asset freezing to try to stop the violence but EU governments were also considering military interventions to rescue anything up to 6,000 EU citizens caught up in the revolt.

The chaos at Libya’s airports and the relief shown by refugees as they reached safety gave an insight to the desperation and fear gripping the North African nation. British officials have identified billions of pounds deposited by the regime in London, which may be seized in coming days.

Gaddafi’s four decades in power seem to have been slightly more lucrative than Hosni Mubarak’s time as leader of Egypt. Though both came from modest beginnings each managed to accumulate billions while in power. Best estimates suggest that Mubarak fled with a €25 billion booty but Gaddafi has trumped that amassing more than €30 billion.

Should Gaddafi’s rearguard action start a civil war it may change the character of the Arab revolt in a very dangerous way. Civil war might give Islamic extremists a toehold in the regional revolt which, to date, has been primarily secular and pro democracy. This could make an already fraught situation very dangerous.

Protests yesterday in Iraq — where at least five people were killed in “a day of rage” — Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain and the West Bank all have the capacity to destabilise the region and threaten the world’s energy supplies.

This possibility has already been reflected in soaring oil prices with some analysts suggesting that it might be prudent to anticipate prices reaching $200 a barrel.

As we try to rebuild our economy increases in fuel prices of that magnitude would have a profoundly negative effect and the incoming government might have to consider imposing a set levy on petrol and diesel rather than a percentage tax. Escalating costs would be difficult enough but if they were matched by escalating tax demands it could be disastrous.

However, our concerns about energy costs pale into insignificance compared to the life-and-death challenges faced by those who want to do no more than what we all took for granted yesterday.

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