By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
Watching the Arab uprisings these days leaves me with a smile on my face and a pit in my stomach. The smile comes from witnessing a whole swath of humanity losing its fear and regaining its dignity. The pit comes from a rising worry that the Arab Spring may have been both inevitable and too late.
The smile? A Libyan friend remarked to me the other day that he was watching Arab satellite TV out of Benghazi, Libya, and a sign held aloft at one demonstration caught his eye. It said in Arabic: "Ana Rajul" — which translates to "I am a man." If there is one sign that sums up the whole Arab uprising, it's that one.
As I've tried to argue, this uprising, at root, is not political. It's existential. It is much more Albert Camus than Che Guevara. All these Arab regimes to one degree or another stripped their people of their basic dignity. They deprived them of freedom and never allowed them to develop anywhere near their full potential. And as the world has become hyper-connected, it became obvious to every Arab citizen just how far behind they were.
This combination of being treated as children by their autocrats and as backward by the rest of the world fueled a deep humiliation, which shows up in signs like that one in Libya, announcing to no one in particular: "I am a man." And because so many Arabs share these feelings, this Arab Spring is not going to end - no matter how many people these regimes kill.
It is novelists, not political scientists, who can best articulate this mood. Raymond Stock, who teaches Arabic at Drew University in Madison, N.J., is writing a biography of the Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz. In an essay, Stock pointed out how Mahfouz foreshadowed so many of the feelings driving the Arab Spring in his novel Before the Throne. In it, a rebel firebrand defending his revolution against the pharaoh said what could have been heard on any afternoon in Tahrir Square this year:
"We have endured agonies beyond what any human can bear. When our ferocious anger was raised against the rottenness of oppression and darkness, our revolt was called chaos, and we were called mere thieves. Yet it was nothing but a revolution against despotism, blessed by the gods."
But that also explains that pit in the stomach. These Arab regimes have been determined to prevent any civil society or progressive parties from emerging under their rule. So when these regimes break at the top, the elevator goes from the palace straight to the mosque. There is nothing in between.
So outsiders face a dilemma: Those who say America should have stood by Hosni Mubarak, or should not favor toppling Bashar Assad in Syria - in the name of stability - forget that their stability was built on the stagnation of millions of Arabs. Their deal was Arab autocratic stability: We take your freedom and feed you the Arab-Israeli conflict, corruption and religious obscurantism. But to embrace the downfall of these dictators - as we must - is to advocate leveling a building with no assurance that it can be rebuilt. That is what happened in Iraq, and it was hugely expensive for us to rebuild.
So to embrace the downfall of these dictators is to hope that their own people can come together to midwife democracy. But here one must honestly ask: Is the breakdown in these societies too deep for anyone to build anything decent out of?
My answer: It's never too late, but some holes are deeper than others, and we are now seeing that the hole Arab democrats have to climb out of is really, really deep.
Again, Stock points us to a passage in Mahfouz's Before the Throne, which is a novel in which each Egyptian leader challenges his successor. In this case, Mustafa al-Nahhas, the head of the liberal Wafd Party, which was crushed when Gamal Abdel Nasser led a military coup in 1952, berates Nasser for eroding Egypt's constitutional heritage.
"Those who launched the 1919 Revolution were people of initiative and innovation in … politics, economics and culture," Nahhas tells Nasser. "How your high-handedness spoiled your most pristine depths! See how education was vitiated, how the public sector grew depraved! How your defiance of the world's powers led you to horrendous losses and shameful defeats! You never sought the benefit of another person's opinion. … And what was the result? Clamor and cacophony, and an empty mythology - all heaped on a pile of rubble."
Source: New York Times