DURHAM, N.C. — In setting himself ablaze following a humiliating encounter with the police, the university-educated Tunisian vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi triggered a wave of protests across the Arab world. Several Arab dictators who had held power for decades have already been ousted or forced to announce that they will retire.
But protesters in Cairo, Tunis and Sanaa want much more. They also seek efficient governance, economic reforms to stimulate growth, the ouster of collaborators, democratic rights, freedom of religion (and perhaps also from religion) — in short, a comprehensive social transformation.
Everywhere, incumbent regimes have mounted resistance. The unforgettable scene of camel- and horse-riding Mubarak supporters beating tech-savvy Egyptian protesters signals that the old order will not yield without a fight.
The revolts caught seasoned observers, even Arab leaders, off guard. Had the United States known what lay ahead, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would not have remarked, after demonstrations broke out in Egypt, that the Egyptian government was “stable.” Arab leaders now showering their key constituencies with pay raises and food subsidies would have done so earlier, thus avoiding the impression of vulnerability.
Longtime regime opponents, too, were caught off guard. For days after Egypt erupted, the Muslim Brotherhood did not know how to react, making it seem out of touch with the “Arab street.”
For decades, most Arabs, however unhappy, kept their political grievances private, for fear of persecution if they turned against their leaders publicly. Through private discussions with trusted friends, everyone sensed that discontent was common, yet no one knew, or could know, the extent of it.
It’s even harder to gauge what it would take for the disaffected to say “enough is enough” and begin challenging their regime openly, defiantly and in concert. If a sufficient number of Arabs reached that threshold at the right time, the long-docile Arab street would explode in anger, with each group of new protesters encouraging more to join in, giving people elsewhere in the Arab world the courage to initiate protests of their own.
That much was understood widely by entrenched Arab dictators, who saw to it that their intelligence and security corps extinguished any flame before it could spread.
History will record that the match Bouazizi lit on Dec. 17 became the fortuitous spark that ignited an Arab prairie fire. The fire spread so fast that by the time Arab leaders understood what it would consume, it was beyond anyone’s control, and in more than one country. The overthrown Tunisian dictator must now regret that his security forces did not arrest Bouazizi and lock him up, rather than allow his public self-immolation.
As it turned out, by the time the seriousness of the rebellion became clear, fear was already changing sides even within the halls of Tunisian power. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s aides had started worrying more about being caught on the wrong side of Tunisian history than about facing the wrath of their beleaguered boss.
Fissures within the Egyptian regime suggest that in Hosni Mubarak’s entourage, too, fear is in flux.
The mechanisms underlying this political unpredictability are not unique to the Arab world. Unforeseen uprisings are possible wherever repression keeps people from expressing their political preferences openly.
In 1989, the fall of repressive East European regimes in quick succession stunned the world, including dissidents who had long recognized communism’s vulnerabilities. Just before the Iranian Revolution of 1979, a CIA report characterized the Iranian monarchy as an “island of stability.”
A month before the Russian Revolution of February 1917, Lenin predicted that his country’s great explosion lay in the distant future. All of these cases involved the mushrooming of public protest by long-quiescent constituencies with no prior record of coordinated action.
The aftermath of an unanticipated revolution will itself present surprises. In Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, no one knows where power will lie in the months to come. As in Iran in 1979, demonstrators united in opposition to the old regime have wildly differing goals. Their biggest demands — secure jobs, faster growth, low food prices — are not necessarily compatible, and they may require policies that inflict pain. Divisions within the opposition movements are thus inevitable.
If the Arab societies now in turmoil had democratic traditions, they could be expected to find compromises peacefully, through open and honest debate. Alas, given their histories of autocratic rule, giant leaps forward to full-blown democracy are unlikely. Though steps toward democracy are possible, when the euphoria of the moment passes, political contenders will realize that, if only in self-defense, they must restrict their opponents’ freedoms.
Adding to the complexity of the situation are the Islamists, who have so far kept a low profile. They themselves are divided, with preferences ranging from Shariah rule in one form or another to a “Turkish model” involving mild Islamism capable of achieving mass support through the ballot box.
Several things are certain. The Arab street has changed the calculus of fear not only in the countries that have witnessed major protests, but also in the rest of the Arab world, where rulers are on notice that discontent need not remain submerged forever. Arab leaders old and new will implement policies designed to alleviate popular dissatisfaction. They will consider both easing repression, in order to gain sympathy and tightening it, in order to prevent uncontrollable protests. But, whatever they do, they — and the rest of the world — must now expect surprises.
Timur Kuran is a professor of economics and political science at Duke University and the author of “The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East.” © 2011 Project Syndicate
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