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At the heart of the Arab revolts: a search for dignity

When Muammar Qaddafi recently asked Libyans to rely on his 'moral authority,' an ever more sophisticated Arab generation widely read the request as an insult to their intelligence.

By Staff writer / March 3, 2011

Libyan protesters wave a national flag during a demonstration against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, with The Green Book Center building in background, in Benghazi, eastern Libya, Wednesday, March 2.

Kevin Frayer/AP

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Paris

Historians are still sorting out the French Revolution, let alone the end of the Soviet empire in the 1990s. The Arab revolutions, sparked by the self-immolation of an educated young Tunisian vegetable vendor, are only two months old. The panoply of causes – from unemployment to social media, to deep repression – have barely been plumbed.

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But taking a page from the “people’s historians,” ordinary Tunisians, Libyans, and Egyptians themselves describe the heart of this moment as a revolution for dignity.

On the Facebook page “I am Arab,” on countless blogs, on posters from Cairo's Tahrir Square, they are saying: "We can be our own heroes,” a “new memory” of liberty has been created, and a “genuine uprising of the people for the people” can be wrought by “rediscovering courage.”

" 'We the people' has come to the Middle East," says Lebanon-born Karim Emile Bitar, an analyst at the Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies in Paris. “For 40 years, Arabs have been governed by buffoons … they see the red carpet rolled out for visiting Western democrats who lecture on human rights when it suits them. Eating bread is no longer enough. They want bread, liberty, and dignity. Is that too much to ask?”

The Arab cry for dignity is so understood as the e=mc2 of the uprising that Libya's Muammar Qaddafi tried to steal the script, telling a youth rally Feb. 25 that “Life without dignity is useless.”

Hillary Clinton grabbed that script back in Geneva Feb. 28, calling for Mr. Qaddafi to leave “now, without further violence or delay” at a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council. The US secretary of State described the Arab moment succinctly: “We see in their struggles a universal yearning for dignity and respect. And they remind us that the power of human dignity is always underestimated until the day it finally prevails…. This moment belongs to the people, particularly the young people, of the Middle East.”

A reminder of the power of human rights

Human rights has so long been a stranger at the gates in the Arab world that the West may now owe thanks to the Arab people for reminding the world of its importance.

It is, to be sure, early days. Fighting in Libya and worry in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia shows how fraught and unscripted revolutions are. But the Arab uprising has upended aspects of realpolitik, which for decades dictated Western support for autocrats as the answer to fears of chaos, political Islam, and tides of Arab émigrés.

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