Events across the Middle East and North Africa appear remarkably similar in causation to what occurred in the 1970s in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and after 1989 across Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Many outsiders misread the Arab mind and heart as anti-Western and consequently came to depend on outdated stereotypes, overlooking that it was really about well-justified anger towards their own dictatorships.
Unemployment, corruption, brutality against peaceful protesters, incompetence--all played roles in each of the democratization waves since the ‘70s. What has been termed the ‘Authoritarian International’ has now taken major blows among 340 million Arabs, aided by Internet news, Facebook, Twitter and Al-Jazeera, the Arab TV network. Apologists for Muammar Qaddafi, for example, such as Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Chavez in Venezuela and China’s party-state media, all look merely self-interested.
Who would have anticipated that the suicide of Muhammad Bouazizi, 26, the university graduate who was denied by police the right to sell vegetables in the street of his town, would spark protests among Tunisians and across North Africa? Twenty three years of indifference by President Ben Ali towards most Tunisians became the key factor in the collapse of his government.
Tunisians have long had a reputation for moderation, education and intellect. The third of the population on line, including two million with Facebook accounts, created a communications spike, which emboldened aspirations for fuller lives. What appears inherent in the DNA of the human family is zest for life, freedom of thought and expression, compounded by survival, creative and entrepreneurial instincts. Human beings are like eagles in that we want to soar and explore and feel the wind beneath our wings. One email caught the national mood: “The Tunisian peoples’ souls are burning.” When the military evidently defied orders to fire on protesters, the regime was finished.
Hosni Mubarak probably launched the democratic revolution in Egypt when he attempted to have his son, Gamal, nominated as his successor as president. The protests in Tahrir Square were led by an alliance of secular groups, including Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, with the Muslim Brotherhood staying in the background. Their disciplined efforts to maintain a non-violent opposition inspired the world. The army, gauging the depth of opposition support and its longer term interests, stayed loyal to citizens.
As Dennis Ignatius, Malaysia’s former High Commissioner to Canada, put it, “For more than two weeks, Egyptians took to the streets to demand freedom and an end to decades of tyranny. They were shot at, beaten, bullied, and jailed, yet they kept going, numbers swelling with each new attempt to silence them or break their will. They were seeking the same basic rights that the West has always insisted are the birthright of every human being”.
The American journalist, Tom Friedman, offers an interesting perspective on Bahrain:
“While Facebook has gotten all the face time in Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain, don’t forget Google Earth… On Nov. 27, 2006, on the eve of parliamentary elections in Bahrain, The Washington Post ran this report from there: ‘Mahmood, who lives in a house (with his extended family), said he became even more frustrated when he looked up Bahrain on Google Earth and saw vast tracts of empty land, while tens of thousands of mainly poor Shiites were squashed together in small, dense areas. ‘We are 17 people crowded in one small house, like many people in the southern district,’ he said. ‘And you see on Google how many palaces there are and how the al-Khalifas [the Sunni ruling family] have the rest of the country to themselves’.”
As the protests mounted, the king shamefully opened fire on pro-democracy protesters, with hundreds reported injured or killed. Under the misapplied banner of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Saudis moved troops into Bahrain, claiming it was to counter Iranian influence. In reality, it was to put down democratic aspirations in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
Street protests in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain helped ignite the ones in Libya, Algeria, Iran, Jordan, Morocco, Syria and Yemen.
The U.N.-adopted doctrine of Responsibility-to-Protect (R2P), applicable when regimes turn on their own citizens, is being tested in Libya now; the ultimate result is unclear, but it must succeed.
We know that many residents of Benghazi would have been slaughtered—hunted from door-to door as “rats” according to Colonel Qaddafi —if NATO/French aircraft had not attacked his mostly hired-to-kill mercenaries advancing on the city.
It also seems clear that if Qaddafi keeps power in Tripoli he will probably seek to revert to his ‘mad dog’ role in the Lockerbie bombing and other international terrorism of earlier years. Ways must be found under Security Council resolutions 1970 and 1973 to continue to protect Libyans and to increase pressure on those around Qaddafi to remove him and his family from Libya. Yesterday's Le Monde indicates that the EU, with hopefully Arab support, is expected to launch a humanitarian mission to help the 300,000 residents of Misrata. Military support might prove necessary to deliver such aid, but Res. 1973 does authorize helping civilians with “all necessary means".
Freedom turns out to be what most Arabs want and are willing to fight for. Too many Western governments and business people presumed that the best course was to work with dictators. It is a potent reminder that all people, regardless of culture or religious background, aspire to determine how they will be governed.
Jeremy Kinsman, Canada’s former head of mission to 15 countries or organizations, including the European Union and Russia, and principal author of the Diplomats Handbook for Democracy Development Support (https://www.ccd21.org), recently wrote about the Arab world:
“There is no single template for democracy. Each trajectory is different, pending on traditions and states of readiness. To sustain popular acceptance, democracy must deliver other essential outcomes — transparency, fairness, justice and adequately shared economic progress.’’
For the 33 members of the Arab League – all with large Muslim majorities – a major issue in terms of democratic governance will be how to apply the direction in the Qur’an: ''commanding right and forbidding wrong.”
When Indonesia, the largest Muslim democracy, held parliamentary elections in 2009, support for extremist parties declined. Most voters seemed concerned about good governance, jobs, and economic growth. Overall, support for fundamentalist parties fell. Similarly, in Malaysia’s 2008 elections, most voted for parties that promised good governance. Parties that had purely religious agendas did poorly. Voters, two-thirds of which are Muslim, resoundingly rejected the ruling party in four major states.
When Europeans rose against Communists in 1989, Westerners rushed to cheer them on. When Burmese monks led protests against the country’s military rulers in 2007, we encouraged them and insisted that the generals must go. When Iran’s rulers launched a bloody crackdown on peaceful demonstrators following the rigged 2009 presidential election, we demanded that those responsible be sanctioned.
There was no talk of transition. There was no turning to tyrants to oversee the move towards a democratic future. There was no suggestion that somehow the people pressing for change with their very lives were not ready for decent governance. We understood that the transitions, after years of tyranny, would be messy affairs. We expected that mistakes would be made. Democracy is, after all, everywhere a work in constant progress. But we believed that liberty would prevail and that democracy was an unstoppable force.
This is the breakthrough we’ve been waiting for, a response to radical Islam that we did not dare believe would come. We should be overjoyed that democracy and freedom are mobilizing Arab peoples. The West must not choose the safety of the status quo in the guise of “stability” over genuine liberty and democracy.
We must not allow fear of radical Islam to keep us from supporting nascent Arab democracies. And neither should we buy into tyrants’ self-serving sophistry that the only way to contain radical Islam is through dictatorship. There is a better way – the way of freedom and democracy – and that is what peoples throughout the Arab world are choosing. They must not be left to stand alone or wait in vain for the support of free peoples everywhere.
It follows that I strongly favour the promotion of democracy as a key component of the foreign and development policy of every country where education for all, the rule of law and equality of all persons are respected constitutional principles.
Samuel Huntington had many things wrong in his notion of the ‘clash of civilizations’. One was failing to understand that human dignity is essentially indivisible in today’s world.