Sunday, June 12, 2011
The popular revolts taking place across the Arab world came as a surprise, but big changes always do. Yet history shows us that repressive governments are not finite. Just look at the Soviet Union. Communism’s collapse once seemed unimaginable, too.
Like a set of dominoes waiting to be toppled, the old guard--the despots and the autocrats--many of whom have bled their societies dry, are on shaky ground. Freedom of expression is clearly a threat to their survival.
Ruled for too long by dictators who cared little for the wishes of their populations, the image of Arab peoples has gone through a rapid sea change that has seized the imagination of the world.
The popular image of the ubiquitous terrorist and the Arab “strongman,” where stability equaled stagnation, are being swept away. After all, what choice is there for men who have come to power by non-democratic means except to resort to force or flee?
The West paid lip service to alliances in the Middle East at the expense of the citizens of those countries. A stable Middle East was a synonym for many things, among them free-flowing oil.
With the fall of Mubarak in Egypt, American foreign policy was re-made overnight. As a consequence, the US isn’t in the driving seat anymore - the Arab people are. And you’d better believe the West is paying attention.
But it is the concept of dignity and taking justice into one’s own hands that I find particularly inspiring. I marvel at the courage of the people driving the changes. Shaking off decades of passivity must be intoxicating. And in an age where technology has made information both accessible and instant, Facebook and Twitter seem to have served as catalysts for the widespread eruption of rage, certainly among the young.
I recall hearing about a man in Egypt whose identity card was issued with an incorrect spelling (and hence a subsequent mispronunciation) of his name. Because of corruption and inefficiency he had to go through life constantly dealing with this slight. This might be a small thing to us in the West, but it’s so important a concept for an individual’s pride and dignity.
There is civil war in Libya and perhaps in Yemen and Syria, too. No one knows what the eventual government of Egypt might look like, and Islamist influence remains an unknown across the entire region; but I can't help but feel that extreme Islamist ideologies will continue to subside if popular revolutions drive real change.
Israel isn't immune from these shockwaves, either. Without Syrian support, Lebanon might also descend into chaos. Perhaps even the US might be less friendly toward Israel if she is seen as an obstacle to US influence in the new Middle East.
For Israel, supporting moves toward democracy in the Arab countries is a gamble because she needs stability and predictability. The Arab Spring could yet turn into an Israeli Winter.
What if the Palestinians again march to Israel’s borders but in greater numbers? Used to dealing with violent demonstrations, what would Israeli soldiers do when confronted with thousands of unarmed demonstrators demanding to return to homes their families lost over half a century ago?
Change does not necessarily mean the Arab people will remain anti-American in the long run and I think this is a real chance for the US to be an influential partner. Gone are the days of supporting dictators as the lesser of two evils. The Arabs have revolted by themselves. These are their revolutions. But freedoms won can turn into dictatorship again. Widespread violence cannot be ruled out. Western style democracy seems unlikely, but it is too early to know that.
It is for future historians to grapple with the significance of what is happening today. Will it be a transition to democracy, or a reshuffle to a different form of autocracy?
After all, despite the best efforts of NATO, Gaddafi is still in power, and President Assad--aided by his ghastly brother--will kill as many of his own citizens as is necessary to remain in power. Plus, if and when change comes to Saudi Arabia, expect bigger earthquakes ahead.
These are heady times and I hope the Arab Spring blossoms into real change and not something that might have been.