The Arab world's Berlin Wall moment
Arabs are on the brink of a democratic wave similar to the one that swept through Eastern Europe 20 years ago. The Arabs’ democratic journey may well be rocky, but there is no turning back.
As mass protests rock Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, and Jordan, the omnipotence of the Mukhabarat, or security-controlled state, appears to be crumbling. In particular, the inability of President Hosni Mubarak’s much-feared security apparatus to suppress swelling protesters and retain the status quo signals the beginning of the fall of the Arab authoritarian wall. Against all odds, hundreds of thousands of young Arabs – men and women – have taken to the streets and called for change and freedom, risking their lives.Skip to next paragraph
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Tunisia provided the spark that has ignited political fires across the Arab world. If the Tunisians could oust their oppressive dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, many Arabs dared to think the unthinkable. If Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world and the capital of its cultural production, transitions to pluralism, there will be a ripple effect across the region.
Regardless of whether the oppressive Arab regimes weather the violent storm, their ruling order is no longer sustainable. Ordinary Arabs feel empowered, on the verge of a new democratic dawn. They have shed political apathy and joined the political space. The genie is out of the box.
In contrast, Arab rulers worry that their long authoritarian reign has come to an end. After 32 years in power and despite a recent effort to appoint himself president for life, Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen said he will neither seek reelection nor hand over authority to his son once his current term ends in 2013. “No extension, no inheritance, no resetting the clock,” Saleh stated. But those concessions failed to quell a planned large protest on Thursday in the capital Sanaa, dubbed a “day of rage” following the Egyptian and Tunisian models.
Meanwhile, King Abdullah II of Jordan fired the prime minister and his cabinet after weeks of anti-government demonstrations and ordered a new premier to carry out speedy political reforms. The Jordanian king has signaled his willingness to engage leading social and political forces and listen to their demands.
Emboldened, protesters are no longer satisfied with minor reforms. They are demanding substantive political change – restructuring of closed Arab societies along pluralistic lines. For the Arabs, psychologically and symbolically, this is their Berlin Wall moment. They are on the brink of a democratic wave similar to the one that swept through Eastern Europe more than 20 years ago, hastening the Soviet Union’s collapse. In this sense, the Arab intifada has put to rest the claim that Islam and Muslims are incompatible with democracy.
A messy journey
Like their Eastern European counterparts, the Arabs’ democratic journey will be rocky, messy, uneven, and prolonged. There is no assurance of successful democratic transformation, and there will undoubtedly be setbacks. Although critically injured politically, Mr. Mubarak might manage to survive. The army still calls the shots in almost every Arab country. The most difficult challenge is to institutionalize the relationship between the army and civilian leadership and put an end to the domination by the senior ranks of the military. Like Eastern Europe, Arab transition from political authoritarianism to more open, pluralistic societies will take more than two decades.