It’s a sign of the times that some Arab journalists attending the gathering of international power brokers in Davos, Switzerland, were spending their free time scanning Twitter messages about political protests back home. It’s that kind of moment in the Arab world, when people are nervous about anything that is connected to the status quo.
The unrest that toppled a government in Tunisia has spread across the region, with big street demonstrations in Egypt, Jordan and Yemen. It’s a movement that appears leaderless – more like a “flash mob.” But it shares a common sensibility – the rising expectations of a younger generation that sees global change on the Internet, and has momentarily lost its fear of corrupt, autocratic leaders at home.
“I think it’s overdue,” says Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who runs the Alwaleed 24-hour news channel, speaking about the street protests in Egypt. “There were reasons for people to get angry 10 years ago, 20 years ago, and now it is here.” Indeed, he says, “the Arab world has been seeking renaissance for the last hundred years,” but has stalled the last several generations, caught between fear of authoritarian regimes and anger at their corruption.
It’s an easy revolution to like, and U.S. officials have wisely endorsed the protesters’ goals of openness and reform. But in truth, there’s little America could do to bolster the octogenarian Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, even if it wanted to. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may endorse reform, as she did Wednesday, but this is a post-American revolution, encouraged in part by a recognition of the limits of U.S. power.
The unrest follows a series of American failures in the region. President Barack Obama promised change. But he couldn’t bring Israel and the Palestinians to a peace agreement, and couldn’t counter Hezbollah in Lebanon or its patron, Iran. America is not the stopper in the bottle anymore, and the Arab man in the street knows it.
U.S. officials are encouraged by the fact that the protesters in Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab countries seem autonomous of the Muslim Brotherhood and other radical Islamic groups. But that may be false comfort; this process is still in its early stages.
History teaches that revolutions are always attractive in their infancy, when freedom is in the air and the rebellion seems spontaneous. But from the French and Russian revolutions to the Iranian uprising of 1979, the idealistic but disorganized street protesters usually give way to a manipulative revolutionary elite – the “Revolutionary Guard,” as the Iranians like to call them.
This life cycle of revolution was evoked by scenes of protesters battling riot police in Tahrir Square in Cairo this week. The square’s name means liberation, and it was named for Gamal Abdel Nasser’s revolution against the monarchy in 1952. But one set of Egyptian autocrats was gradually replaced by another.
Tunisia’s deposed President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali lost his nerve, something that hasn’t yet happened with Mubarak. On the very day he fled Tunis, Ben Ali is said to have called a member of the Saudi Cabinet for advice. He was told to talk to the protesters, stop shooting and stay in the country. By that night he had fled to Jeddah.
One Arab intelligence analyst speaks of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan as “unviable countries,” whose economies can’t seem to grow fast enough to meet the demands of their rising young populations. Joe Saddi, the head of Booz-Allen’s consulting operations in the Middle East, says that to succeed, Egypt needs India-level growth rates of 8 percent or more, rather than its recent 5 percent.
Lebanon is another step into the unknown, with Prime Minister Najib Mikati heading a new government dominated by Hezbollah. The Saudis, French and Americans have all bungled efforts to avoid this outcome; for now, they seem likely to let Lebanon stew in its internal political mess and foreign debt. Mikati may seek a middle path, in the classic Lebanese fashion. But one Arab foreign minister is said to have voiced privately what many suspect: The standoff between Hezbollah and its enemies will be resolved only by another war.
In the end, there’s a sense of inevitability about this revolution, like a rotten gourd that finally bursts. One Egyptian business executive in Davos warily summed up his feeling about regime change this way to an Arab friend: “Long term, it’s good; short term, it’s bad.” But even that is a piece of optimism about an Arab future that’s up for grabs.