Even for the Middle East, what’s happening there as you read this is entirely shocking. Few, if any, could have expected that the entire region would have such a turbulent and exciting January — a revolution in Tunisia, an uprising in Egypt and similar demonstrations in Lebanon, Algeria, Jordan and now Yemen too. An unpredicted domino effect seems to be in play and though it is uncertain what will come of these popular movements, one thing is certain: The people of the Arab world have suddenly awoken from an oppressed slumber and are screaming, “Enough is enough!”
Let’s recap for a minute. Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution was triggered by the self-immolation of a Tunisian street merchant, Muhamed Bouazizi, last December. The resulting demonstrations that erupted across the country sent their President, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, fleeing on Jan. 14 and left the entire Middle East stumped. How could a dictator, a blatant tyrant, in power for 23 years be forced out of his country by his own people? Until two weeks ago, this very idea was virtually nonexistent in the minds of most Arabs. Almost immediately, the flames of inspiration were lit. Self-immolations began occurring across the Arab world, in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Mauritania. On Jan. 25, a reportedly 50,000-strong anti-government demonstration, organized through social networking sites, took place across Egypt — an uprising of unprecedented and unplanned intensity in recent memory. Unrest has also travelled to Algeria, Jordan and Yemen, where protesters are demanding President Ali Abdallah Saleh’s resignation.
The level and intensity of these demonstrations, especially in my native Egypt, are unheard of and is making Arab leaders quake. While in Yemen, Algeria, Jordan and even Libya, the government response has been to increase wages and subsidies, in Egypt the authorities have retaliated forcefully. No matter the response, it all means the same thing: Regimes that have been ruling for decades are worried for their survival and desperate to control the situation.
The question then arises — why is all of this happening, suddenly and without much warning? Newspapers, radio, television and online articles may talk about the unemployed youth, the widespread poverty, the corruption and the political stagnation, but these are all symptomatic of something larger — oppression. As an Egyptian student at Georgetown, I have constantly told my American friends that they don’t know what it’s like to live with the same president all their life, under seemingly perpetual emergency rule. To suppress peoples’ will to think and express themselves for years is ultimately nothing short of unnatural. It is unnatural and one day will turn against those who enforce such a state of existence.
Over time, the oppression becomes deeply personal and constraining. Bouazizi burnt himself not because the government usurped yet another one of his attempts to sell vegetables on the streets of Tunis, but because the oppression was so deeply entrenched it determined his will to live. Furthermore, the ease by which Egyptians, Algerians, Yemenis and others can empathize with this has opened the floodgates and made Tunisia a living symbol.
Consequently, the Arabs are looking for as much support as they can get from within the region and internationally. The U.S. support of the will of the people in Tunisia has delighted many, but its hesitant reaction to the Egyptian protests was met with cynicism. Though Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has urged the Egyptian government to allow the demonstrations to happen, she has also stated that situation is generally “stable.” With all due respect, Mrs. Clinton, enough is enough. The people in Egypt are fed up and do not want things to stay the way they are, so we humbly ask you to recognize this. Yes, the Mubarak regime is important to you and to relations between Israel and the Palestinians, but the situation is not stable. Things are turbulent in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, but for once, it is the people who are shaking up the so-called stability on an unprecedented scale. Perhaps if the U.S. and the rest of the West change their attitude to dictatorship in the region, the deadlocked state of war and conflict in the Middle East might just change as well.
Looking forward, though the uprisings across the Middle East these past few days have largely been peaceful on part of the protesters, changes of regime will largely be determined by where the military stands. Both Egypt and until recently, Tunisia, have politically invested militaries. In Tunisia, the government fell when the military decided it wouldn’t support Ben Ali any longer. What will happen in Egypt and elsewhere is uncertain, but the position of the military is undeniably significant. The Egyptian uprising has also probably shot down any chances of Gamal Mubarak, the son of the current president Hosni Mubarak and widely believed to be his father’s choice as successor, from ever holding the presidential office. But all we can really do is wait and see what will happen in a very unpredictable situation.
Nevertheless, no matter the outcome, these uprisings will leave a strong legacy in the history and political imagination of the region. Egyptians have proven to the world that they are, in fact, capable of protesting en masse, dismissing the notion that they have an overarching agricultural mentality that is built on patience and apathy. Indeed, plans have been made for another massive, peaceful demonstration on Friday, Jan. 28, after people have gone to church or the mosque. Tunisians and Egyptians alike have broken barriers of fear and hopelessness. They are no longer willing to sit down and shut up as others rule over them. And they are doing so as one voice no matter their political background or if they are Muslim or Christian. They have found their voice again and they are saying that they want change. They want a say in their governments. They want to breathe. They want nothing more than to fly free because, right now, enough is enough.