MADRID – On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. Within weeks, the popular revolt triggered by Bouazizi’s act had spread far beyond Tunisia, engulfing much of the Arab world.
In Europe, Ukraine and other troubled countries, such as Bosnia, began their long and still incomplete transitions to democracy a quarter-century ago. The Arab world, by contrast, has logged a mere three years of transition – the blink of an eye in historical terms. Still, there have already been significant changes, and the region is advancing – though the destination remains unknown. As in other parts of the world, Arab countries need time to attain the democracy and pluralism their peoples seek. They will achieve their goals – but not in a mere three years.
In fact, events in today’s Middle East continue to be shaped by the radical changes brought about after World War I. Previously, most Arabs had been grouped together under various caliphates. After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, two nation-states (Iran and Turkey) emerged, while the Arabs were distributed among 22 new countries, generally under British or French colonial domination.
Once the colonies had achieved independence – Saudi Arabia, today a Sunni regional power, was created in 1932 – a new attempt was made to unite the Arab nation by means of the political Islam that emerged in the 1920’s in response to the fall of the Ottoman Caliphate. The phenomenon took many forms, including the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928. At the same time, efforts at nation-building along secular lines were reflected in Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabism and the Syrian Baath Party, resulting in the establishment of the United Arab Republic, a union between Egypt and Syria that lasted from 1958 to 1961.