Demise of the Dictators

By Ajami, Fouad | Newsweek, February 14, 2011 | Go to article overview
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Demise of the Dictators

Ajami, Fouad, Newsweek

In lands that have been plundered and tyrannized, the Arab Revolution of 2011 has been smoldering for decades. What finally turned resignation into rebellion.

Historians of revolutions are never sure as to when these great upheavals in human affairs begin. But the historians will not puzzle long over the Arab Revolution of 2011. They will know, with precision, when and where the political tsunami that shook the entrenched tyrannies first erupted. A young Tunisian vegetable seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, in the hardscrabble provincial town of Sidi Bouzid, set himself on fire after his cart was confiscated and a headstrong policewoman slapped him across the face in broad daylight. The Arab dictators had taken their people out of politics, they had erected and fortified a large Arab prison, reduced men and women to mere spectators of their own destiny, and the simple man in that forlorn Tunisian town called his fellow Arabs back into the political world.

From one end of the Arab world to the other, all the more so in the tyrannies ruled by strongmen and despots (Libya, Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Algeria, and Tunisia), the Arab world was teeming with Mohamed Bouazizis. Little less than a month later, the order of the despots was twisting in the wind. Bouazizi did not live long enough to savor the revolution of dignity that his deed gave birth to. We don't know if he took notice of the tyrannical ruler of his homeland coming to his bedside in a false attempt at humility and concern. What we have is the image, a heavily bandaged man and a tacky visitor with jet-black hair, a feature of all the aged Arab rulers--virility and timeless youth are essential to the cult of power in these places. Bids, we are told, were to come from rich Arab lands, the oil states, to purchase Bouazizi's cart. There were revolutionaries in the streets, and there were vicarious participants in this upheaval.

A silent Arab world was clamoring to be heard, eager to stake a claim to a place in the modern order of nations. A question had tugged at and tormented the Arabs: were they marked by a special propensity for tyranny, a fatal brand that rendered them unable to find a world beyond the prison walls of the despotism? Better 60 years of tyranny than one day of anarchy, ran a maxim of the culture. That maxim has long been a prop of the dictators.

There is no shortage of autopsies of the Arab condition, and I hazard to state that in any coffeehouse in the cities of the Arabs, on their rooftops that provide shelter and relief from the summer heat, the simplest of men and women could describe their afflictions: the predator states, the fabulous wealth side by side with mass poverty, the vanity of the rulers and their wives and their children, the torture in countless prisons, and the destiny of younger men and women trapped in a world over which they have little if any say.

No Arabs needed the numbers and the precision supplied by "development reports" that told of their sorrows, but the numbers and the data were on offer. The Arab Human Development Report of 2009--a United Nations project staffed by Arab researchers, the fifth in a series--provided a telling portrait of the world of 360 million Arabs. They were overwhelmingly young, the median age 22, compared with a global average of 28. They had become overwhelmingly urbanized: 38 percent of the population lived in urban areas in 1970; it was now close to 60 percent. There had been little if any economic growth and improvement in their economies since 1980. No fewer than 65 million Arabs were living below the poverty line of $2 a day. New claimants were everywhere; 51 million new jobs have to be created by 2020 to accommodate the young. Tyranny kept these frustrations in check. Eight Arab states, the report stated, practiced torture and extrajudicial detention. And still, the silence held. Bouazizi and his deed of despair brought a people to a reckoning with its maladies.

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