Amid another day and night of widespread protests in Egypt, and rumours of a massacre of protesters in Suez, Western governments’ policy toward the Middle East is tottering and is now one dictator’s plane flight away from collapsing altogether.

For decades, Western governments, and particularly the United States and unquestioning allies such as Australia, have backed the most vile Middle Eastern regimes as long as they served broader strategic purposes. The Shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein were prized vassals during the Cold War. Later, the threat of Palestinian terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism and “another Iran” meant the Jordanian monarchy, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali received lavish aid from the West even as they flagrantly violated basic human rights.

The “Arab street”, stereotyped even by left-wing commentators as some sort of inarticulate, monolithic source of rage, was considered incapable of dislodging its dictators.

Tunisians showed otherwise, in an event wholly unexpected by Western governments and a mainstream media commentariat used to thinking strictly in clichés about the Arab world. First in Algeria, and now in Egypt, other Arab states are now facing the same protests, fuelled by the same forces of economic and political discontent. This time, at least, the western media is paying attention. Commentators are beginning to wonder whether the hitherto rock-solid Mubarak regime could go the same way as Ben Ali’s.

Meanwhile, al-Jazeera has effectively destroyed the Palestinian peace process by revealing not merely how far the Palestinian Authority was prepared to compromise in its negotiations with Israel, but how little real interest Israel has in any sort of settlement with the Palestinians. It has long served Western governments, every bit as well as it has served Israel, to portray the Palestinians as incapable of the sort of serious compromises that would deliver peace.

The approach of the United States and of every western country to the Middle East must now fundamentally change. And as each protest is savagely repressed, and each fatality is counted, the urgency of doing so becomes ever greater. Treating Arabs as a second-class race that gets overlooked when it comes to human rights is no longer sustainable.