We have learned much about the Arab world in the last four years, including the combination of heroism and criminal deviance dwelling deep within our societies. In fact, we have learned more about ourselves in these four years than we did in the preceding century – because this has been the only stretch of time in which history in the Arab world has been driven heavily, even primarily, by the actions and sentiments of its own men and women, rather than by its narrow elites or foreign powers.
Those elites and foreign powers were caught off guard four years ago today, on Dec. 17, 2010, when Mohammad Bouazizi set himself on fire in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, when he became exasperated by the mistreatment he experienced at the hands of local police. His action sparked demonstrations of support by hundreds of rural Tunisians who understood what had driven him to his suicidal act.
His frenzied exasperation was also a dramatic, reckless self-affirmation announcing that, in fact, he was not helpless, voiceless and without sentiments or rights. He turned out to be the most powerful Arab of all time – for he sparked the greatest simultaneous citizen uprisings ever known in this region.
When the protests spread to the capital Tunis and pushed out the regime, hundreds of millions of Arabs instinctively followed the events on satellite television. They felt in their hearts and bones the sentiments that Bouazizi and a demeaned Tunisian population expressed in rebelling against a regime that had mistreated them for decades.
That was four years ago, and in the interim we now know much more about ourselves and our world. That’s because only in this period of time have we seen unleashed in our countries the many forces bottled up in the strange circumstances of our past century: circumstances of manufactured statehoods, compounded and conflicting identities, breezy nationalisms, and an increasingly desperate race by tens of millions of families to keep their children and their own humanity alive.
Those unleashed forces have included the most noble aspirations for democracy, pluralism, citizenship and dignity, alongside the darkness and demons of criminal minds who destroy their countries and kill their own people to perpetuate their authoritarian control.
I remain convinced, as I have been from the start of the uprisings and revolutions four years ago, that the most important lesson of this process has been the unquestioned desire by the vast majority of Arab men and women to live decent, ordinary lives defined by dignity, equality, liberty and opportunity, without the dictatorial mismanagement and corruption that they had suffered for generations. That noble desire – a universal human characteristic – could not prevail and transform societies into functioning pluralistic democracies, with the exception of Tunisia to date.
One major reason for the slippage of half a dozen Arab states into violence, chaos and fragmentation has been that those indigenous elites and foreign powers who had been taken by surprise in early 2011 regained their footing and fought back viciously to reassert control. Fear then took hold among tens of millions of ordinary men and women who did not flee their countries and risk their lives. Fear transformed otherwise normal people into fanatical machines that often killed according to sectarian identity.
This was not the first time this had occurred in our modern history, of course. We had killed, burned and looted like this before – in Iraq, Lebanon, Algeria, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and other troubled lands, where citizens and governments slaughtered each other ferociously and routinely in some years. Savage death squads, terror attacks, ethnic cleansing and wholesale urban warfare scarred some of our cities and towns once again, revealing a sick streak that we had seen only briefly in some Arab quarters.
This time, however, has been different, because the killings were preceded by a rainbow. Death at the hands of devils was heralded by a chorus of angels asking to live freely and fully. The noble aspirations of those Arabs who non-violently rebelled against their dictators in early 2011 never had a chance, it now appears in retrospect. Some Arab governments and foreign powers poured guns and money into other Arab countries, as old elites and comfortable generals with their backs to the wall lashed out mercilessly and killed everything in sight in order to remain in power.
We learned about a dark side of ourselves that we never imagined could exist. We know today, though, about both our angels and our devils, and they will battle for our souls for some years to come. We have become normal countries in the early years of our painful rebirth.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.