It’s far too early to know if the recent protests in Tunis and Cairo will lead to either greater democratic freedom, a more tolerant or intolerant police state, or Islamic radicalism. We can only wait and watch from the safety of our television and computer screens. One thing for certain is that the citizens of the world (particularly our university students) had better wake up to what is going on in the Arab world. These protests were begun by students and it’s likely that today’s students will live with a much different Arab world than we did only weeks ago.
Poverty may very well be the greatest threat to global security. Poverty has the power to transform seemingly disgruntled and frustrated people into homicidal maniacs willing to blow themselves up and take as many of us with them as they can. Poverty has the power to make Ajaxes (or Willie Lowmans) of us all. The frustration of not being able to find work is not only an American problem, but also a global one. The preoccupation with the economy in the Untied States is, I suspect, narrow and shortsighted. That is, the citizens of the United States want our economy to rebound (and rightly so) so that we can go back to buying our vacation homes, our second and third cars, our two weeks in St. Lucia, our big screen televisions sets, and more. I am not pointing fingers here, I am just as guilty as everyone else, and I have a lot of “stuff;” I am merely making an observation. Yet, Americans today overwhelmingly confuse democracy and capitalism. Democratic freedom should not rest with the ability to buy the biggest car one can, simply because one can. The rest of world would just like to have the economy rebound just so they can eat. The young man who set himself on fire in Tunis several weeks ago ignited a much bigger firestorm than he could have realized. This firestorm, as we are now witnessing in Egypt, threatens to set the entire Arab world ablaze. This will fundamentally alter the whole world.
In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak steadfastly refuses to step down, despite the violent protests of tens of thousands of people who have filled the streets of Cairo over the last five or six days. Mubarak’s thirty-year reign is now facing its most serious challenge. In addition to issuing a curfew, Mubarak has “silenced” popular social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook. These steps served only to further enrage the citizens of Egypt. Violence has escalated and Mubarak has designated a vice president for the first time in his presidency. The designation of a vice president is, however, little more than an empty gesture and I believe that the Egyptian people realize this.
As of January 29, 2011, it remains unclear what role, if any, the Muslim Brotherhood will play in Egypt’s future. As ruthless as Mubarak is, I fear that the ruthlessness of the Muslim Brotherhood (like any theocracy, even a Christian one) will be much worse. Any notion of God and democracy is incompatible. God is, by definition, a ruthless and merciful dictator. If religion continues to bleed into our concepts of democracy, and the United States is not uninvolved in this, then I fear for us all.
The “Jasmine Revolution,” as some are calling it, began when violent protests by mostly students in the streets of Tunis forced the Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee the capitol for Saudi Arabia after twenty-three years in power, yet most of his cabinet members have remained. The protests in Tunis set off a possible powder keg that now threatens the security of the entire region. The questions are: Who will eventually come to power? What will power look like in the post-Tunisian world? I am not quite sure if what happened in Tunisia can be considered a “revolution” as such, but the shock waves it is now sending throughout the region are revolutionary. Similar protests have already occurred in Yemen and Jordan. And although Iran’s terribly violent protests last year ended rather quickly, I feel that the sentiment has not been diluted.
We cannot expect a U.S. style democracy to take root in the Arab world, nor should we. Our democracy is unique and can be traced back to Athens, whose concept of the term was anything but democratic (just ask any ancient Athenian woman). Nevertheless, an imposed democracy, like the one we are seeing in Iraq and Afghanistan, is not a democracy. We cannot define democracy for other nations; they must conceptualize democracy for themselves. An Arab democracy is possible, difficult, but possible. The United States must tread carefully here. While diminishing rapidly, our influence in the region is still undeniable. After Israel, Egypt receives the largest amount of U.S. economic aid per year. However, what happened in Tunis and what is happening in other parts of the Arab world may change our influence, and not necessarily for the better.