While much of what has come to be known as “the Arab Spring” remains a work in progress, there can be no doubt that a new dynamic has been unleashed across the region – one that will have a profound impact as it continues to play out in the years to come.
What is most important to recognize is the fact that the developments that have unfolded since Tunisia have all been generated internally, putting to rest the patronizing mythology of the neo-conservatives and their ilk, who had long maintained that change could only come to the Arab World if induced by external (that is, Western) pressure. This was the view, for example, promulgated by Bernard Lewis, who once wrote that in the past change had only occurred in the “stagnant Middle East” when it had been “initiated by past European rulers”. This theme was echoed more recently by Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute when she argued that if change were to come to the contemporary Arab World, “the West must hold open the door” and apply needed “outside pressure”.
For some in the Bush Administration, that was to be the role of the Iraq war. As it was envisioned (more as an apocalyptic fantasy, than a war), the US-led invasion would not only topple the dictator ushering in a new democracy, it would also shock and shake up the region. Out of the ensuing chaos, they projected that a “new order” would be born – a view enthusiastically supported by the New York Times' Tom Friedman who had long described the Arab World as an “ossified region” and who, therefore, congratulated the Bush Administration for using the war to blast “a hole in the wall of Arab autocracy”. And it was this same mind-set that caused then Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, and National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice to wax poetic about the “passing of old orders” in the aftermath of the war.
Neo-conservatives similarly projected that Israel's punishing blows against Gaza and Lebanon would play a transformative role, leading Rice to cavalierly dismiss the horrible devastation left in the wake of Israel's 2006 onslaught in Lebanon as “the birth pangs of a new Middle East”.
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These views, of course, were not only profoundly insensitive, they were dead wrong. Contrary to the Bush Administration's ideologically inspired projections, the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Israel's war on its neighbors did not lead to democracy or even to progressive change. Instead, what was left in the wake of each of these conflicts was death and destruction, bitterness and suffering, and a deepened sectarian divide, coupled with a spreading of extremist fervor and intensified regional tension. Arab populations became roiled, Arab governments that had been making even modest moves toward change, pulled back and, overall, the region became more repressive and less free.
The movements that started in Tunisia and spread to Egypt and beyond, on the other hand, are far more deserving of the “birth pangs” designation. They have been inspirational – creating a new pride amongst publics who had long felt deflated and powerless to make change. They have been contagious – with tactics and slogans being copied or adapted to local settings, despite each country’s unique characteristics. And they have been purely Arab and, it bears repeating, self-generated. There were no would be “Lawrences” or “Rumsfelds” at work in any of these uprisings fashioning themselves as the shapers of the Arab's destiny.
To be sure, circumstances differed from place to place – Egypt is not Tunisia, nor can Yemen or Bahrain or Syria be seen as cast from the same mold. There were some common characteristics, but what inspired these revolts in each case were unique to each country.
Nevertheless, it is impossible to ignore the fact that what started in Tunis, and came to fruition in Egypt, has ignited a new sense of empowerment and possibility across the Arab World. And as young people have moved to non-violent protest and been met with violence, it has only hardened their resolve to demand change.
The story is far from over. Egypt and Tunisia remain unfinished, while the movements for change in Yemen, Bahrain and Syria have been frustrated by obstinacy and miscalculation. And Libya, for its part, has taken a detour – with the role of NATO now fundamentally altering the course of this revolt, turning it into something quite different than “the Arab Spring”. But even in this unsettled and uncertain state, there is a new spirit in evidence across the region. Even in governments where there is no demand for change, or where majorities are satisfied with their current circumstances, the dynamic of this region-wide revolt can be felt. Arabs have been inspired and imbued with a new sense of pride, governments will listen more carefully to citizen needs, and change will occur.
The path forward will have its obstacles and there will be setbacks, but the journey will continue. And when the history of this seminal period is written what will be noted is that the movements that launched it all and carried it through were started by Arabs, who took steps by themselves to create their own futures.