As mass protests rock Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, and Jordan, the omnipotence of the Mukhabarat, or security-controlled state, appears to be crumbling. In particular, the inability of President Hosni Mubarak's much-feared security apparatus to suppress swelling protesters and retain the status quo signals the beginning of the fall of the Arab authoritarian wall. Against all odds, hundreds of thousands of young Arabs – men and women – have taken to the streets and called for change and freedom, risking their lives.
Tunisia provided the spark that has ignited political fires across the Arab world. If the Tunisians could oust their oppressive dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, many Arabs dared to think the unthinkable. If Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world and the capital of its cultural production, transitions to pluralism, there will be a ripple effect across the region.
Regardless of whether the oppressive Arab regimes weather the violent storm, their ruling order is no longer sustainable. Ordinary Arabs feel empowered, on the verge of a new democratic dawn. They have shed political apathy and joined the political space. The genie is out of the box.
In contrast, Arab rulers worry that their long authoritarian reign has come to an end. After 32 years in power and despite a recent effort to appoint himself president for life, Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen said he will neither seek reelection nor hand over authority to his son once his current term ends in 2013. "No extension, no inheritance, no resetting the clock," Saleh stated. But those concessions failed to quell a planned large protest on Thursday in the capital Sanaa, dubbed a "day of rage" following the Egyptian and Tunisian models.
Meanwhile, King Abdullah II of Jordan fired the prime minister and his cabinet after weeks of anti-government demonstrations and ordered a new premier to carry out speedy political reforms. The Jordanian king has signaled his willingness to engage leading social and political forces and listen to their demands.
Emboldened, protesters are no longer satisfied with minor reforms. They are demanding substantive political change – restructuring of closed Arab societies along pluralistic lines. For the Arabs, psychologically and symbolically, this is their Berlin Wall moment. They are on the brink of a democratic wave similar to the one that swept through Eastern Europe more than 20 years ago, hastening the Soviet Union's collapse. In this sense, the Arab intifada has put to rest the claim that Islam and Muslims are incompatible with democracy.
Like their Eastern European counterparts, the Arabs' democratic journey will be rocky, messy, uneven, and prolonged. There is no assurance of successful democratic transformation, and there will undoubtedly be setbacks. Although critically injured politically, Mr. Mubarak might manage to survive. The army still calls the shots in almost every Arab country. The most difficult challenge is to institutionalize the relationship between the army and civilian leadership and put an end to the domination by the senior ranks of the military. Like Eastern Europe, Arab transition from political authoritarianism to more open, pluralistic societies will take more than two decades.
Nevertheless, the democratic virus is mutating and will probably give birth to a new language – and a new era – of politics in the Arab world.
Domestic concerns and grievances – jobs and freedoms, not anti-Western foreign policy sentiments – mainly fuel the new Arab intifada. Unlike protesters of the Islamic revolution in Iran in the late 1970s, neither Egyptians nor Tunisians burn American and Israeli flags, nor are they blaming Western imperialism for their predicament.
Similarly, clerics and mullahs are not the drivers behind the social upheaval engulfing Arab countries. The embattled middle class is spearheading the revolt against the oppressive status quo. Though fragmented and lacking coherence and unity, the opposition includes a rainbow coalition of men and women of all ages and political colors, including liberal-leaning centrists, democrats, leftists, nationalists, and Islamists. Unless the opposition rises to the challenge and unifies and democratizes, it will be superseded by a new rising active majority.
What distinguishes the Arab intifada from the Iranian revolution is that there is no Ayatollah Khomeini waiting in the wings to hijack the revolution and to seize power. In the case of Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is only one influential constituency among a mosaic of non-religious oppositional groups. The Brothers have long renounced violence and fully accept the rules of the political game. As the biggest and most organized religiously-based movement in the Muslim world, the Brotherhood has shown political realism, maturity, and savvy. Muslim Brothers labor hard to shed their old image of radicalism and subversion. They are seen by many other members of the opposition as opportunistic and capable of back-door deals – even with the hated Mubarak regime.
There is no real danger of a security vacuum filled by extremists because there are checks and balances in place. Despite the persistence of violence, the Army has already filled the vacuum left behind by the departure of Mubarak's police and security apparatus. If and when a political agreement is reached – a complex dilemma – the military will probably oversee transition to a new regime as long as the vested interests of the senior officers are preserved. The diversity and vibrancy of the opposition and of civil society also work against the possible hijacking of the peaceful Egyptian intifada.
Though belated, the United States has finally come to terms with the importance and inevitability of change in the region, including Egypt, its strategic ally.
Addressing Egyptian protesters, Obama said their "passion and dignity" was "an inspiration to people around the world, including here in the United States and to all those who believe in the inevitability of freedom."
"I want to be clear, we hear your voices," Obama said. Despite the lack of clarity in the US position, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has warned Arab leaders of a "perfect storm" that might sweep them away unless they enact change immediately.
While there are inherent risks in the spreading unrest across the Arab world, recent events point to a more promising and brighter future. Arabs are overcoming the bitter legacy of colonialism and the failed post-colonial state. They are struggling to own their history and determine their future. The struggle for empowerment and freedom will be long and costly, but there is no return.
Posted 8 February 2011
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Fawaz A. Gerges. This article first appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.
Professor Gerges is the director of the Middle East Centre .
Professor Gerges gave a public lecture at LSE entitled 'A Perfect Storm in the Arab World?' on Thursday 24 February 2011. The podcast is now available online.