The astonishing popular protests against Arab autocrats that have churned the region for three months are the authentic birth pangs of a new Middle East. Israel’s American-backed attempts to bomb Hezbollah and south Lebanon into submission in 2006 did not change the region, as Condoleezza Rice predicted it would. Nor did the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq three years earlier, which former President George W. Bush touted as introducing democracy to the Arab world, have much effect.
The change now is coming from within — and from below. Ordinary people taking to the streets swept away the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia. The leaders of Libya and Yemen are fighting for survival. Arab leaders almost everywhere else are trying to fend off real or potential challenges with a mix of repression and concessions.
“The rulers are running scared, with good reason — the people have terrified them,” said Rashid Khalidi, professor of Arab studies at Columbia University in New York. “The spectre of popular power haunts the dictators and monarchs.”
The region’s mostly Muslim citizens are at last proving they are no exception to the democratic trends that have transformed eastern Europe, Latin America and much of Africa and Asia in recent decades. The pro-democracy movement will reshape the Arab world as powerfully as the ideologies of Arab nationalism, socialism, communism and political Islam in the last 150 years, argues Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center in Beirut.