Unfortunately, I don’t have as much time to devote to this topic as it deserves. But I believe it merits at least a brief mention, given the remarkable nature of what is transpiring in the region.
What’s happening in the Arab world right now is unprecedented in a lot of ways. For one thing, there is the scale of protests, both within the respective countries involved and in the region as a whole. While there has been a long history of revolutions and social unrest throughout the region (particularly in each of the nations that are currently facing the most civil unrest), none of them have ever involved so many people, or occurred simultaneously in a regional and transnational manner. The protesters have mostly represented a broad cross-section of their respective societies: rich and poor, secular and religious, jobless and employed, and so on.
When a diverse number of people can come together and agree on common values – of representation, clean and accountable government, economic and social reform, and so on – the spirit of democracy becomes tangible and validated. Whatever their respective differences, the peoples of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Bahrain, and other nations can agree on the same universal basics: that they should all be entitled to speak their minds, elect their leaders, and have a say in their own futures. Granted, many differences will likely emerge as time passes; everyone has a different idea about what democracy should look like, for example. But it certainly represents a great start, since Arabs are acknowledging the plurality of their political and ideological beliefs, a necessary precondition to any democratic society.
The transcendent nature of these protests is another tangential case in point. Despite national differences, included interstate conflicts, all the people of the Middle-East seem to be united together in their mutual calls for freedom and reform. The protests that are sweeping the entire region were triggered by national unrest in the small country of Tunisia. Middle-Easterners everywhere looked to that event with sympathy and understanding; they knew too well what the Tunisians were angry about and what they wanted, because they had the same experiences and the same desires . Thus, the unrest has begun to take a pan-regional character. Protesters from across both continents are united for the same goals and the same struggles. They’re communicating and assisting one another’s efforts, and looking to one other’s struggles for support and inspiration. Much as with Eastern Europe in 1989, the entire region is trying to collectively free itself from the same shackles.
And they’re doing it on their own. That is another high point in all these revolutions. Beyond a few perfunctory statements from world leaders calling for peace and reform, these people are taking matters in their own hands. They’re not receiving international assistance, nor are they asking for it. They’re doing what we expect adherents to democratic values to do: take charge of their own fates. This speaks volume in a region that has long been influenced and intervened upon by foreign powers, particularly the United States, which had allied itself with many of these noxious regimes.
So far, America has (rightly) avoided being too involved in any of the protests, beyond making the usual calls for peace and freedom. While some have argued that it should play a larger role in supporting the Arab (and Iranian) public, I believe that America should limit it’s support to nothing more than it’s current diplomatic gestures, for two reasons:
1) The US has a bad reputation in much of the region, which is not entirely undeserved, given it’s closeness to the oppressive regimes of Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia (among others). Any US involvement, even with good intentions, would be seen as perverse and hypocritical, and would likely taint the vital grassroots nature of these civil actions.
2) Jumping off from my first point, these events are the makings of the people, and should remain as such. It’s not our’s or anyone else’s place but theirs to decide their own future. The fact that these calls for freedom and reform are being cultivated by the public as a whole is something to be encouraged and supported, but not infringed upon. By their very nature, the goals of liberty and democracy are best achieved by the people.
To reiterate, I’m not saying the US should be completely uninvolved. Some would argue that by nature of our considerable presence in the region, we should have some sort of role. Furthermore, one can argue that we should atone to the Arab people for being complicit in their oppression by deciding to take a stand against these tyrannies. I whole heartedly agree with both sentiments: if these regimes continue to murder more of their people, as Libya and Bahrain have, then the US lead international efforts to weight in on their cruel leaders and demand they – at the very least – cease the crackdown. I’m merely suggesting that outside nations restrain themselves from trying to play too much of a role in shaping these countries’ future.
I’ll end this report by discussing what is by far the most important and enlightening lesson from these protests: that the values of democracy, liberty, and general freedom, while often nuanced, are more universal than we realize. For years we were believed, and we even taught, that democracy wasn’t compatible with Arab culture and society; that the people of the Middle-East weren’t keen on representative government or political freedoms; that Islamic values were inherently hostile to those of democracy. Yet now, as I write this, we’re seeing millions of these people risk their lives in the name of these things we long thought were alien or unimportant to them.
Granted, I’m well aware that it’s too soon to tell what sort of regimes will emerge from those that have been – and might still be – overthrown. I know that democracy, if it does come, will take a lot of time, and likely be nothing like what the average American would envision to be ideal form. Democracy is quite a broad concept, and it has many different forms, mechanisms, and societal influences from country to country.
But when millions of people start calling for the same things we all would – job opportunities, better education, political empowerment, less corruption, representation – I think it’s a very good start.