Augustus Richard Norton and Emile Nakhleh

Quest for dignity

Sustained demonstrations cripple government, compel change

Libyan protesters throw copies of Moammar Khadafy’s “Green Book’’ before burning them during a demonstration in Benghazi, eastern Libya. Libyan protesters throw copies of Moammar Khadafy’s “Green Book’’ before burning them during a demonstration in Benghazi, eastern Libya. (Associated Press)
By Augustus Richard Norton and Emile Nakhleh
March 3, 2011

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A REVOLUTIONARY spirit has captured the imagination of tens of millions of Arabs, young and old. The appetite for freedom and the commitment to tolerance that dictators claimed as absent from Arab societies turn out not to be missing at all.

The Arab world is entering a new historical phase, one in which the contours of political power will be reshaped as governments become more accountable and responsive. Never in the modern history of the Middle East have so many millions demanded the dismantling of their autocratic regimes with such unanimity, perseverance, persistence, and peacefulness.

Already a rapt world has watched Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Mubarak tumble from power, and in the coming days the Libyan regime will continue to crumble. In Yemen, Saleh’s days are numbered, and in Bahrain, the Persian Gulf’s first constitutional monarchy is likely to emerge. Even in Algeria, where the generals keep a steel grip on power, growing demands for reform were rewarded in late February with an end to 19 years of martial law. Public protests are growing in Morocco, Jordan, Oman, and Saudi Arabia, and recent visitors to Syria discern roiling currents of dissent.

Demonstrations in towns and cities are publicized aptly as Days of Rage. The rage has been pent up for years and decades. It stems not just from government neglect, dishonesty, and corruption, but also from the fact that most Arab governments have treated their subjects and citizens with disdain.

For decades, popular efforts to organize politically have been met with repression, and public demonstrations have seldom been tolerated. The quest for dignity was kept at bay by repression, economic coercion, and fear.

Complaints about greed and malfeasance that for many years were only whispered are now fully aired. Cell phones, satellite television stations, and the Internet allowed people to know that so many others shared their rage. Yet, this has not been a Twitter revolution, or a contagion of economic grievances, but a quest for respect and dignity.

The quest for dignity is still fettered in places like Syria, but the accumulating lessons of protests across the Arab world may not be unlearned: Massive, peaceful, and sustained demonstrations cripple government and compel change.

Popular demonstrations provide American policy makers with several lessons and challenges. First, the generation calling for change is generally youthful, inclusive, tolerant, and not beholden to the regime. Nor are they controlled or directed by Islamist radicals. In Tunisia, Egypt, and Bahrain, Islamist movements had to play catch-up with the revolt. Second, Islamist leaders quickly realized that they are only one of many voices in the movement and that they must collaborate with emerging centers of power to help chart their country’s future.

Third, imperiled Arab autocracies are now in a rush to clean up their act. Whether the sitting governments survive or not, western governments that for so long were willing to avert their eyes from human rights offenses and brutality will now find it more embarrassing to do so, and much more difficult to defend if they do.

Fourth, the Obama administration may continue to throw up its hands in exasperation at the obduracy of Israeli and Palestinian belligerents, and cast vetoes that shield Israel from the opprobrium that it has earned through some of its occupation practices, but the double-standards game will be tougher to play. Those millions of protesters see right through the hypocrisies, thanks to the same new media that facilitated their organization of protests.

The welcome news for Washington is that Al Qaeda has to be crestfallen. The terrorist organization preaches violence and hatred in the name of Islam, but Arab youth in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Manama’s Pearl Square, and Tripoli’s Green Square have endured death and injury in the defense of their peaceful call for dignity and freedom. They showed astounding discipline in rejecting violence, a phenomenon that violent jihadists cannot possibly comprehend.

Civil society in several Arab countries is producing new cadres of leaders — youthful, sophisticated, legitimate, inclusive, and non-ideological. They want their societies to prosper and to join the modern world. This is what Obama talked about in Cairo in 2009.The enlightened interest of the United States dictates that Washington become more serious about telling regimes that America’s backing is contingent on their people’s support. If regimes lose their legitimacy, they are on their own. This is the lesson from the historic upheaval that has now begun.

Augustus Richard Norton is professor of international relations at Boston University, director of the Institute for Iraqi Studies, and author of “Hezbollah.’’ Emile Nakhleh is the former director of the CIA’s political Islam strategic analysis program and author of “A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World.’’