The desire for greater individual freedom is intrinsically human. It’s also contagious.
Last week, a purely spontaneous revolt began in the North African nation of Tunisia. Fed up with decades of corrupt and oppressive authoritarian rule, Tunisians took to the streets. To their amazement, the army stood down and refused to fire upon them. Ben Ali, the dictator who had kept them poor and enslaved, fled, and his regime collapsed.
Millions of Arabs saw that. They also saw the Iranian revolt that began in 2009 and continues, in fits and starts, beneath the jackboot of the mullahs. They also saw the establishment of a somewhat decent, representative government in Iraq. It may be shaky. It may be fractious. It may be hit with violence now and again. But it exists.
The Iraqi and Tunisian examples are proving to be powerful draws. In the last few days, the revolt for greater political freedom, economic development, and basic human rights has spread to Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Yemen, Libya, and Saudi Arabia. The tyrants who rule there are quaking in their robes. Are the mobs going to grow? Will their security forces join with the demonstrators? Should they flee? Will they survive? Is this the end of the line?
As I wrote yesterday, this revolt is fundamentally different from previous Middle East mass protests (see “Sandstorm”). Another critical difference has emerged: like the Iranian revolt, these are driven primarily by the middle class and by young people. They are communicating via Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. The regimes are trying to shut those sites down, but the kids will always find a way. Two-thirds of Egypt’s 80 million people are under the age of 30. One Egyptian Facebook user posted, “We have started the path to freedom and we will not stop.”
The current revolts are still driven by those forces, but now darker forces have emerged to try to co-opt and control them. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist forces have joined the fray, with an eye on capitalizing on the chaos in order to seize power. This is a very dangerous moment.
We were caught flat-footed when the people suffering behind the Iron Curtain revolted, leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall. We were similarly unprepared when the Iranian people took to the streets to demand a greater voice. And we’ve been stunned again by this rapid turn of events in the Arab world.
Which way will these revolts go? Will they succeed in overthrowing longstanding dictatorships? Will they be crushed? Will the dark forces of Islamism ride this to power the way they did with the original Iranian Revolution in 1979? Will the revolts go the way of greater liberty or toward Islamist extremism?
No one knows the answers to these questions yet. But we do know that the world can change on a dime. It’s happening right now.
Are we ready?
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