After Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia, what comes next?
Pro-democracy warriors in Middle Eastern countries such as Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia push through barriers of fear only to find a constellation of needs, demands, and problems on the other side.
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"Arabs are not going to accept a return to authoritarianism," says Shadi Hamid, a Qatar-based analyst with the Brookings Doha Center who witnessed the peak of elation in Cairo, where he said Egyptians experienced "true, unfettered freedom for the first time in their lives."Skip to next paragraph
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He describes a "new protest ethic" in the Arab world. "If the Egyptian military doesn't respect their demands, or a future government doesn't respect their demands, they are going to come out onto the streets again and again and again," says Mr. Hamid. "We used to talk about Arab exceptionalism in the sense that [Arabs] are anti-democratic, but now I think we can talk about another kind of Arab exceptionalism, where Arabs seem to have really unified ... behind the vision of a democratic Arab world."
Achieving that vision may prove harder than toppling calcified sultans. Though protests are rocking regimes from Libya to Bahrain to Yemen – with the media perhaps too loosely encapsulating an array of grievances and motivations in the label "pro-democracy" – there is no one-size-fits-all template for a democratic outcome.
On top of that is a growing sense that, despite eye-catching gains, the transformation is far from complete in the countries that have brought down their rulers – never mind those remaining chieftains who, in a bid to preempt people power, have rushed to make reforms, pay off citizens with cash handouts, or promise not to seek yet one more term in office.
In Tunisia, a new surge of violent protests in late February – six weeks after former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled – left five dead and prompted the resignation of Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi. Protesters had demanded that he, as one of the last high-profile remnants of the old guard, step down, or their break with the past would not be complete.
"I am not ready to be the person who takes decisions that would end up causing casualties," said Mr. Ghannouchi, who had been prime minister for 11 years under Mr. Ben Ali. Yet a senior trade union leader complained that the immediate appointment of Ghannouchi's replacement – the 84-year-old former Foreign Minister Beji Caid Essebsi – was antidemocratic. How could Tunisia pull out of crisis, he asked, "if the president does not take at least 24 hours for consultations."
In Egypt, likewise, there have been moments of prerevolution déjà vu. Security forces tried to break up an overnight reform rally in Tahrir Square, truncheons flailing as if the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak weeks earlier had never occurred. A military council has taken interim control – despite some calls for a predominantly civilian five-member presidential council – but has yet to say exactly when it will end Egypt's 30-year-long state of emergency, nor offer a precise timetable for making a new constitution and electing a new parliament and president.