© Mazen Mahdi/EPAProtesters in Bahrain celebrate after reaching Lulu Square in the capital city of Manama, defying calls by crown prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa for calm.
Western backing for the old regimes in the Middle East and north Africa precludes any cosy narrative about popular uprisings.

There has been a tendency among western commentators during the past few weeks of popular uprising in the Middle East and north Africa to interpret the events as occurring along starkly defined fault lines.

There are the people versus the regime; Islamists versus the secular; and autocratic, corrupt rulers pitted against a popular desire for democracy, human rights and economic inclusion. All of which contains some truths, but it remains a partial picture.

In our desire to create a joined-up narrative out of the unrest, from Yemen to Iraq and Bahrain, we have ignored the specifics. In the rush of politicians such as Hillary Clinton to support the new wave of "freedom", western governments seem to be replicating the same errors they made during the "colour" revolutions, mistaking the act of revolt for the outcome of a long period of revolution, and accepting the incomplete in the name of "stability".

For, like Tolstoy's unhappy families, each of the autocracies now embroiled in popular uprisings is autocratic in its own way. What can be said about the events in Tunisia is as inapplicable to Egypt as it is to Bahrain or Yemen.

In truth, there are some broad common strands: each country has a young population with a significant, well-educated segment and many people looking for work. In each, power has been monopolised by a small elite, either drawn from a royal family or from a figure backed by the military and business and the west. Corruption is often rife; a culture of repression is vigorous and deeply ingrained.

But that tends to be where the similarities end. Take, for instance, comparisons between Egypt and Bahrain. The former is a huge state with a massive urban hinterland centering on Cairo, one of the planet's megacities. Its recent history includes a "revolution" in 1952 that was in reality a coup. Its social conflicts have been defined by the notion of the threat - in substantial part manufactured by the old regime - of the Muslim Brotherhood and a corrupt system of patronage overseen by the military and the associated National Democratic Party which have enjoyed a monopoly on power and economic opportunity.

Bahrain, for all of the similarity of some of the chants at the Pearl roundabout - and the violence used in the attempts to break the protest movement - has a social conflict very differently defined. It has been underpinned by a long-festering sectarian conflict in a Shia-majority country where a Sunni royal family has ruled since the 18th century.

Preferment for jobs, including the military and police, has not been through party patronage but through sect, resulting in a situation where the capital is largely Sunni and the far poorer countryside is Shia. Which leaves a profound challenge for the west, whose interventions in the region have historically tended to support exactly those autocrats whose power is now being challenged, while promoting neo-liberal economic policies that have enriched the minority elites while making daily life more difficult for many in the region.

It is not good enough to talk, as Clinton, Barack Obama, William Hague and others have done, in feeble generalities about "stability", "freedom" and "restraint" in a networked world where the weakness and slowness of expression of those sentiments is so rapidly exposed.

If western diplomacy - and media commentary - has a function in these times, it should be to expose and focus on the precise dynamics of the awful inequalities in these societies and the routine violence and oppression that sustains them.

If the west has a contribution to make, it is in an honest and accurate audit of the nature of the states our governments have for so long been supporting, not prevarication. To describe reality, not vague ideals, and in describing it, reboot the policies that have for so long supported repression and corruption.