I‘ve written recently about the vicious, dispiriting murders of human-rights advocates in Pakistan and Uganda. I’m an optimist by temperament, but stories like these are enough to drive me to the edge of despair. In my worst moments, it makes me wonder: is it possible for liberal, secular democracies to survive over the long term? Can free and enlightened nations ever endure, or are they nothing more than a momentary flicker in the dark?
No republic can survive if its people don’t value it, if they’re not willing to defend it – and in so many cases, the people have proven all too eager to listen, instead, to religious demagogues who preach that free speech is blasphemy, that women are divinely ordained to be slaves, and that the role of the state is to compel faith and enforce ancient dogma. Even in modern, advanced states, those hard-won freedoms seem to be slipping away.
So yes, I do have moments when despair creeps up on me. But then, a few weeks ago, the Arab world exploded, and we’re suddenly glimpsing the possibility that everything may change.
Tunisia was the first: a small but well-educated secular Arab state, run by a kleptocratic dictator. A few weeks ago, a street vendor immolated himself in a cry of protest when the government denied him his last chance to make a living, and his final despairing act became the catalyst for a vast, spontaneous uprising that drove the dictator out with amazing swiftness. Almost as quickly as that, Egypt became the next domino to fall. Seemingly overnight, the country erupted in massive protests airing long-pent-up grievances over its rampant corruption, appalling poverty, widespread police brutality, and an absolute ruler with designs on monarchy. And now there are tentative reports of protests in Syria, in Jordan, in Yemen… And I think, too, of Iran’s embryonic Green Revolution, stopped for now by a brutal show of state power but, I have no doubt, still simmering beneath the surface.
What I find most inspiring, and most incredible, is that the protesters in these countries aren’t rising in support of Islam, aren’t marching to demand a theocracy. They’re marching for liberty, for a society free of corrupt dictatorships and presidents-for-life, for the right to self-determination and democratic representation. (Egypt’s largest opposition party, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, was taken by surprise by the protests and has been scrambling to keep up.) And both in Tunisia and in Egypt, the protesters have been amazingly peaceful. There were even reports of ordinary people forming human chains to protect the country’s museums.
That said, it’s much too early to tell what will come of these revolutions. Egypt is poised on a knife edge, and the Egyptian streets could still explode into an all-out bloodbath (there are already scattered reports of police brutality and killings, difficult to confirm or disprove under a government-imposed media blackout). Even if the protesters are successful and governments fall, new dictatorships could replace the old. The Islamists may yet find a way to subvert the revolutions to their advantage. Still, these uprisings are dramatic evidence for the hypothesis that tyranny never lasts forever, that the people will always rise up and throw off dictatorships eventually. In the face of so much evidence to the contrary, it’s a dramatic reconfirmation of the great, soaring potential inherent in the human spirit.