Published for the Washington Post, January 30, 2011:
For decades, the Arab states have seemed exceptions to the laws of politics and human nature. While liberty expanded in many parts of the globe, these nations were left behind, their “freedom deficit” signaling the political underdevelopment that accompanied many other economic and social maladies. In November 2003, President George W. Bush laid out this question:
“Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty? Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism? Are they alone never to know freedom and never even to have a choice in the matter?”
The massive and violent demonstrations underway in Egypt, the smaller ones in Jordan and Yemen, and the recent revolt in Tunisia that inspired those events, have affirmed that the answer is no and are exploding, once and for all, the myth of Arab exceptionalism. Arab nations, too, yearn to throw off the secret police, to read a newspaper that the Ministry of Information has not censored and to vote in free elections. The Arab world may not be swept with a broad wave of revolts now, but neither will it soon forget this moment.
So a new set of questions becomes critical. What lesson will Arab regimes learn? Will they undertake the steady reforms that may bring peaceful change, or will they conclude that exiled Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali erred only by failing to shoot and club enough demonstrators? And will our own government learn that dictatorships are never truly stable? For beneath the calm surface enforced by myriad security forces, the pressure for change only grows – and it may grow in extreme and violent forms when real debate and political competition are denied.