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Arab Myths and Realities

WASHINGTON, DC – With Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in Egypt – widely considered to have one of the region’s most stable regimes until only recently – and Colonel Muammar Qaddafi clinging to power in Libya, there is no clear end in sight to the turmoil sweeping across the Arab world. Protests have already toppled governments in Tunisia and Egypt, leaving other Arab countries faced with widespread discontent.

The unrest caught most people by surprise – both inside and outside the region – and has fundamentally upended at least five conventional beliefs about the Arab world.

Arabs don’t go into the street. Before the protests began in Egypt and Tunisia, many people argued that there was no real urgency to political reform, and that those who were calling for change did not understand the public mood – things weren’t as bad as the dissidents made them out to be. This line of thinking led governments to believe that Arabs would not demonstrate in large numbers and demand change. In each country, rapid reform was seen as detrimental to national interests.

This argument clearly is no longer tenable. No one predicted what happened in Egypt and Tunisia, which means that no Arab country is immune. Governments don’t have the luxury of waiting forever, and they can no longer use the myth of popular quiescence to avoid initiating the necessary reforms that will address the public’s underlying grievances.