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.

Kevin Frayer/AP
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.

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.

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.

Yet as the Economist magazine noted, “after the wave of secular uprisings, it is the cynics who seem out of touch, and the idealists have turned out to be the realists.…Hard-headed students of realpolitik like to think that only they see the world as it truly is, and that those who pursue human rights … have their head in the clouds.”

This week, Qaddafi again offered up a litany of culprits for the uprisings in his midst: foreign conspiracy, British and American lust for oil, Al Qaeda, and youths on drugs. He asked Libyans to rely on his “moral authority” – a request that an ever more sophisticated Arab generation widely read as an insult to their intelligence.

When leaders don't respect their own people

To this point, the concept of “hogra,” an Algerian term that is found on Arab blogs from Morocco to Bahrain, is relevant. It’s used to describe the contempt felt for Arab people by their own authorities. Nabil Echchaibi, a professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder, addressed the issue in his blog as hired Qaddafi mercenaries shot people in Libya's streets:

“What kind of legitimate government kills its people and then pays people to rally on its behalf? This is exactly the kind of baseness and contempt that Arabs are revolting against.”

Arab political language is changing, Mr. Echchaibi says: “The new slogans are about equitable distribution of wealth, defeating nepotism and corruption, freedom of expression and assembly, all of which are rights meant to restore self-respect and render to people their due sense of dignity.”

Even in Saudi Arabia, where King Abdullah just introduced $36 billion in new measures to help young Saudis in particular deal with housing and education costs, as well as inflation and unemployment, Saudis are openly calling for political reforms. On Feb. 23, a group of 40 young Saudis signed an "open letter to the King," asking for elections for the advisory Shura Council, women's suffrage, and greater accountability, among other things.

The late Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, guiding light of the Solidarity movement that helped end the Soviet empire, captured something of this in his 1980 Nobel lecture, a decade before the fall of the Berlin Wall. He located the core of change precisely where John Adams located it in the US colonies, prior to the American Revolution: in the minds of the people.

Mr. Milosz, a veteran of the Warsaw uprising under the Nazis, nonetheless found a transcendent aspect in the long term: “A profound transformation, of which we are hardly aware, because we are a part of it, has been taking place, coming to the surface from time to time in phenomena that provoke general astonishment. That transformation has to do … with ‘the deepest secret of toiling masses, more than ever alive, vibrant and tormented.’ Their secret, an unavowed need of true values, finds no language to express itself and here not only the mass media but also intellectuals bear a heavy responsibility. But transformation has been going on, defying short term predictions, and it is probable that in spite of all horrors and perils, our time will be judged as a necessary phase of travail before mankind ascends to a new awareness.”

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