By Ray Fleming

IT was easy enough to write in mid-January that “In an arc from the Maghreb in the West to Lebanon and Syria in the East, countries bordering the Mediterranean suddenly find themselves in the midst of revolution, unrest and calls for reform.” But it was impossible then to imagine that the flame of revolt first seen in Tunisia would spread so rapidly that in just over a month the political face of the whole region would be changed.

In reacting to this widespread upheaval it is almost frightening to see how simple yet how complex are the uprisings of the past week. It was possible to be optimistic about the outcome in Egypt, so responsible were the revolutionaries and so responsive the army; problems remain but they are manageable. By contrast, in several other countries there is a sense of people seizing an unexpected opportunity to gain their freedom without having any idea of what structures and experience will be necessary to reach that objective. Within a few days there may be three or four countries in which an oppressive regime has been dismissed but where no stable alternative is in sight.

These countries do not want external intervention, but they may very well need it. The United States may have ruled itself out but the European Union, especially those states which share the Mediterranean, should act speedily to make clear its readiness and competence to help.