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Arab Earthquake: Egypt Is the Region's Turning Point

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EGYPT RIOTS DAY TWO
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While media analysts debate whether social media is fueling revolt in the Middle East and North Africa or whether the US has helped keep regional dictatorships in power, one thing is very clear: The Arab masses are sick and tired of being sick and tired.

From Tunisia spread a renewed hope that Arabs are experiencing a re-awakening of the collective conscience. The protests we have seen there as well as in Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Algeria and Yemen are not simply about the deposition of an authoritarian president or ruling party.

They are about dismantling archaic forms of governance in which the ruler is considered to be beyond reproach and economic policies are determined by his self-preserving business elite allies.

During World War I, Turkey was referred to as the sick man of Europe. But in the 21st Century as Turkey, Israel and Iran came to dominate the discourse in the region, Arabs realized that they were suffering from a malaise - one they helped to propagate by wallowing in self-defeatist insecurities.

Decades of often brutal repression against civil liberties, iron-clad control of the media, corrupt economic policies, single-party rule and the establishment of police states contributed to stifling Arabs' pursuit of true democratic practices.

If one really thinks about it, Arabs (with the exception of Lebanon decades ago) in the region have never known democratic or even pluralistic rule. In the post-colonial era immediately after World War II, it was revolutions and coups by the military that ushered in dictatorships. Coups and counter-revolutions, often bloody as in the case of Iraq in 1958, largely silenced civil society and forced reformists to flee the country.

The 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty further entrenched some of these dictatorships as governments which repressed their peoples but later covertly supported the so-called Middle East Peace Process curried favor with Washington and were labeled as "moderates."

Tunisia was one of these countries, a regular stop for Bush administration officials soliciting the help of former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in stamping out political Islam. In return, Tunisia under his rule was referred to as "stable".

But it's the economy, stupid. Tunisia may have been secular and had progressive laws guaranteeing women's rights but what good are such developments when university graduates struggle to find meaningful employment? In the town of Sidi Bouzid, where the spark of revolution was lit, unemployment had hit 30 percent.

When people go hungry and are unable to provide for their families, are forced to bribe their way to survive inflation, are unable to voice their frustrations and forced to watch as the ruling elite grow more powerful and richer, frustration eventually steamboils into public outbursts of anger.

And so, too, is Egypt's story.

It was not the US State Department, WikiLeaks, foreign influence or Israel that instigated the protests earlier this week.

It was not the increasingly cornered Muslim Brotherhood or the defunct and dysfunctional political opposition groups and parties which assembled on the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Mahala, Suez, and Ismailia.

Inspired by events in Tunisia, voluntary grassroots mobilization brought people to the streets on January 25, taking everyone, even the organizers by surprise. Misery loves company, the saying goes, but so does dissent.

In years past, the small opposition groups like Kefaya and April 6 were barely able to muster several hundred protesters, usually outflanked and outmanned by black-clad riot police. This time the picture was reversed; it was the security forces that found themselves outnumbered.

Mimicking the Tunisian experience, decades of economic and socio-political disenfranchisement, electoral fraud (most recently during the November parliamentary elections), rampant state corruption and the persistent use of social media helped draw Egyptians from every walk of life, many of whom had never participated in demonstrations and many of whom felt their frustrations could no longer be silenced.

This is the Egyptian street in the strictest sense of the word... the silent majority no longer silent.

Despite the number of tear gas canisters fired at protesters and the number of those who have been beaten and detained, there is a feeling among many Egyptians that a long dormant patriotism and pride has been finally awakened.

Ironically perhaps, the notion of Arab unity, long a running joke in the region, is being felt for the first time as many Arabs pledge solidarity and support for the people of Tunisia and Egypt.

Egypt is the most populous and influential Arab country, a socio-political stalwart. What happens there will resonate in the region and produce a ripple effect much more powerful in magnitude and impact than Tunisia's. Over the past few days, protests in Yemen have grown in strength and gusto.

For years, Western nations have used the lack of democratic reforms in the Middle East and North Africa as leverage to pressure and manipulate ruling dictatorships to bend to foreign interests.

Now that the Arab street is alive with the power of the people for the people and by the people, will policies in Washington, London and Paris accommodate their pursuit of democratic reform?