JERUSALEM – During the turmoil of the French Revolution, a popular saying arose: “How beautiful was the republic – under the monarchy.” The Revolution aimed at achieving Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. Instead, it wrought for France – and much of Europe – Jacobin terror, right-wing counter-terror, decades of war, and eventually Napoleonic tyranny. A similar challenge now faces North Africa and the Middle East, where most Arab countries are experiencing massive upheavals.
Historically speaking, what is now happening is without precedent in the Arab world. For the first time, Arab authoritarian regimes have been toppled, and others are threatened, by mass demonstrations calling for freedom and democracy. Previously, Arab regimes changed through military coups and other sorts of putsches, never through popular revolutions.
During the great democratic wave of the 1990’s, which brought down dictatorships in Eastern Europe, Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia, nothing similar happened in Arab North Africa and the Middle East. Now, however, the region’s political inertia has been disrupted. Cairo’s Tahrir Square has become a symbol for both hope and “people power.”
Yet, while most Arab regimes now appear threatened, only two authoritarian rulers – Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt – have been actually deposed so far. Theirs were relatively “soft” autocracies. Much more oppressive and ruthless rulers – Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, Bashar Assad in Syria, and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen – though seriously threatened, have proven far more resilient (up to now) in suppressing popular opposition. Even in tiny Bahrain, the Sunni minority has, for now, succeeded in maintaining its rule over the Shia majority, albeit with military help from neighboring Sunni-led countries.