Everywhere, democracy is proving contagious - except, it has seemed until the current exciting days, in the middle east and north Africa (MENA). While the rest of the developing world is making huge strides towards democracy, especially in south America and Asia, this vast region remains mired in violence, election fraud, denial of civil liberties, and an appalling human-rights record.
The people of several cities in Egypt and elsewhere, after the inspiring Tunisian example, continue to demonstrate for freedom and to brave arrest in face of impervious realitiies: that Arab governments are unaccountable to their people, no head of state has ever been voted out of power, and all leaders contrive to win elections by resounding majorities.
In a new twist to dynastic succession, some heads of republican Arab states have passed power to their offspring while others are planning to do so. From the shores of the Atlantic Ocean to those of the Indian Ocean, the inhabitants are both bereft of political rights and civil liberties and subjected to the worst form of state terror that can be inflicted on a country’s own citizens.
Yet in the first weeks of 2011, there are signs of momentous change in this grim landscape. In the wake of Tunisia, people are in movement in Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, and Algeria. The overthrow of the regime in Tunisia was in a sense an event waiting to happen in every Arab and middle-east country.
The name of Mohamed Bouazizi, the 26-year-old Tunisian who killed himself by self-immolation to protest Tunisia’s oppressive regime, may in time fade from the public’s collective memory. But like that young Iranian of the same age, Neda Agha-Soltan who died in Tehran amid the green movement’s call for more freedom after the presidential election of June 2009, his example is a catalyst that unleashed a revolution of sorts and gave authoritarian regimes throughout the region an unimaginably alarming shock (see Roula Khalaf & Heba Saleh, "Tunisia's 'air of liberty' wafts through Mideast", Financial Times, 21 January 2011).
Many distinguished commentators of the Tunisia intifada (or the “jasmine revolution” as Tunisians are calling it) have claimed that this is the first time that a middle-eastern regime has fallen by popular uprising. This is not the case. In 1948, as an Iraqi prime minister was about to sign a treaty with Great Britain in the city of Portsmouth (hence the name, the Portsmouth treaty), riots erupted in Baghdad in popular protest against the treaty. The demonstrators were met by a hail of bullets from the police but kept coming back day after day.
The then regent, Abdulillah, took fright (not unlike Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali) and called his prime minister Saleh Jabr, who by then had already signed the hated treaty, and ordered him to cancel it. Jabr’s government fell. The event came to be known as al-Wathba (the Leap), and is established as one of Iraq’s most seminal moments.
Another landmark event that brought down an even bigger figure was the Iranian revolution. Popular demonstrations against the Shah began in January 1978. From August-December 1978, strikes and demonstrations paralysed the country. The Shah left Iran for exile in mid-January 1979, leaving behind a power vacuum. Two weeks later, Ayatollah Khomeini arrived in Tehran to a hero's welcome from several million Iranians.
When confronted with determined opposition from their subjects, these so-called strongmen tend to flee rather than stand their ground and defend their past record. They do so because they realise their own guilt and recognise that their positions are indefensible. Jabr fled to his Shi’ite tribe in the south of Iraq and was not heard from for years. The Shah of Iran fled seeking exile in a humiliating series of stops in formerly friendly countries, including the United States.
Ben Ali left Tunisia like a thief in the night, with countries like France rejecting him, until Saudi Arabia took pity on him and offered him refuge in a distant town. For his part, Saddam Hussein fled Baghdad amid the chaos of the US-led invasion in early April 2003, only eight months later to be pulled out of a hole in the ground where he cowered like a wounded animal. No fate could have been more crushing or humiliating to this particular strongman.
When will the middle east leaders and their regimes learn their lesson? So far they have stubbornly refused to allow their citizens any degree of civil liberty - stuck as they are in a vortex of state-controlled media, a cruel police state and an authoritarian political culture of their own making that is characterised by fear and intolerance. Years of arbitrary rule have intimidated many of their citizens, leaving a binary view of reality where people are defined by the regime as “either with us or against us”.
The Tunisia intifada has triggered strong criticism of leaders who cling on to power across in the middle east on account of their lackadaisical approach to reform. Hillary Clinton, at a democracy conference in Doha, blasted them for forever procrastinating on promised reforms, warning that the only beneficiaries are the extremists ready to exploit the lack of democracy to promote their own radical agendas. That might sound like fine advice, had the United States not been the bosom ally of most authoritarian states in the region - including until very recently, Ben Ali’s regime in Tunisia (see Goran Fejic, "Tunisia, or democracy's future in jasmine", 25 January 2010).
Those, like the Americans, who fear the rise of extremism in this part of the world should fear benign dictatorships just as much - as the latter are equally detrimental to the long-term stability and security of their societies (see Vicken Cheterian, "The Arab crisis: food, energy, water, justice", 26 January 2011).
American and European leaders also need to grasp that the middle east and north Africa is on the cusp of a significant change in the way it is governed. The mean streets of the MENA “street” is now also made up of students, of young (and not-so-young) professionals and other (would-be) middle-class groups that form part of a new generation of cosmopolitan idealists bent on breaking the cycle of tyranny and oppression. Peaceful protest appears to be the “third way” or healthy middle ground sought by today’s restless majorities in the region.
This new breed of techno-savvy citizens deploy social-networking techniques on Facebook and Twitter to propagate their message and to keep their fellow freedom-fighters abreast of events in other parts of their country as they unfold. In Tunisia’s case, the uprising was also backed up by first-class reporting from Al-Jazeera. TV images of Tunisians staring down the gun-muzzles of the security forces, gave a fillip to the peaceful revolution (see Ellen Knickmayer, "The Arab World's Youth Army", Foreign Policy, 27 January 2011).
This region has had more than its fair share of despotism and oppression and has paid for it in blood and tears. The people of the region have had to contend with brutal security forces assembled against them by their own leaders. But when their people turn against them, at least some of these leaders - if after having swiped-clean the coffers of the state - are now poised to flee the country.
It is not fanciful to suggest that more than a few MENA leaders are in regular consultations with their Swiss bankers and with those charged with keeping their private jet on stand-by, to carry them into exile when the moment of truth arrives. A moment of truth that is also, for the people of these lands, one of historic awakening.