When Muammar Qaddafi recently asked Libyans to rely on his 'moral
authority,' an ever more sophisticated Arab generation widely read
the request as an insult to their intelligence.
Historians are still sorting out the French Revolution, let alone
the end of the Soviet empire in the 1990s. The Arab revolutions,
sparked by the self-immolation of an educated young Tunisian
vegetable vendor, are only two months old. The panoply of causes -
from unemployment to social media, to deep repression - have barely
But taking a page from the "people's historians," ordinary
Tunisians, Libyans, and Egyptians themselves describe the heart of
this moment as a revolution for dignity.
On the Facebook page "I am Arab," on countless blogs, on posters
from Cairo's Tahrir Square, they are saying: "We can be our own
heroes," a "new memory" of liberty has been created, and a "genuine
uprising of the people for the people" can be wrought by
" 'We the people' has come to the Middle East," says Lebanon-
born Kamir Emile Bitar, an analyst at the Institute for
International Relations and Strategic Studies in Paris. "For 40
years, Arabs have been governed by buffoons ... they see the red
carpet rolled out for visiting Western democrats who lecture on
human rights when it suits them. Eating bread is no longer enough.
They want bread, liberty, and dignity. Is that too much to ask?"
The Arab cry for dignity is so understood as the e=mc2 of the
uprising that Libya's Muammar Qaddafi tried to steal the script,
telling a youth rally Feb. 25 that "Life without dignity is
Hillary Clinton grabbed that script back in Geneva Feb. 28,
calling for Mr. Qaddafi to leave "now, without further violence or
delay" at a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council. The US secretary
of State described the Arab moment succinctly: "We see in their
struggles a universal yearning for dignity and respect. And they
remind us that the power of human dignity is always underestimated
until the day it finally prevails.... This moment belongs to the
people, particularly the young people, of the Middle East."
A reminder of the power of human rights
Human rights has so long been a stranger at the gates in the Arab
world that the West may now owe thanks to the Arab people for
reminding the world of its importance.
It is, to be sure, early days. Fighting in Libya and worry in
Bahrain and Saudi Arabia shows how fraught and unscripted
revolutions are. But the Arab uprising has upended aspects of
realpolitik, which for decades dictated Western support for
autocrats as the answer to fears of chaos, political Islam, and
tides of Arab emigres.
Yet as the Economist magazine noted, "after the wave of secular
uprisings, it is the cynics who seem out of touch, and the idealists
have turned out to be the realists....Hard-headed students of
realpolitik like to think that only they see the world as it truly
is, and that those who pursue human rights . …