The spark that was lit in Tunisia has now spread the brushfire to four countries after consuming Egypt’s long-time president Hosni Mubarak. Coming days will show if the Tunisian uprising will become the Arab equivalent of the 1980 Gdansk strike in Poland that brought down the Soviet empire. Whether the embattled regimes in Yemen, Bahrain andLibya succeed in surmounting street challenge or not, the phoenix of new Arab nationalism emerging from the ashes of fallen regimes promises to radically alter the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East. The sudden flight of Tunisian strongman Ben Ali after 28 days of protest – the first ever Arab potentate in history to do so – burst like a thunderclap energising a small band of pro-democracy Arab bloggers and activists. A new generation of educated but mostly unemployed Arab youth (60% of the population) – who have chafed under corrupt, nepotistic and authoritarian regimes all across the Middle East and North Africa – has had enough of fake Arabism. Instead of parroting the empty anti-Israeli, anti-American slogans long used by the fundamentally pro-western regimes, the new pan-Arab nationalism has turned them against their rulers. Their chosen tools are not Molotov cocktails but Facebook and Twitter and their playbook a Gandhian primer on non-violent protest.
The Tunisian and Egyptian youth who made history in bringing down an entrenched autocrat through non-violent demonstrations lasting less than a month did not turn to al-Qaida affiliates for training. They read comic books on Martin Luther King’s struggle and sought advice from the Serbian students’ Otpor revolution that brought down Slobodan Milosevic through non-violent struggle in 2000. Practising Egyptian-style Gandhigiri, they fraternised with the armed forces, fought back violent pro-Mubarak attackers and with their uncompromising stand forced Mubarak to step down.
The youthful protesters in Tunisia and Egypt upended Nasserite authoritarian, statist secularism, embracing in its place a true secularism based on freedom of expression, human dignity and social justice. The yearning for democratic rule that marked the new nationalism thus rose above the struggle of Tunisia and Egypt and energised youth across the Arab land. Despite significant social and political differences among countries, the call for representative government and end to corruption and nepotism has proved contagious.
For the first time Arab nationalism is all about building and reforming their own societies, not blaming foreign powers for their ills. A chant developed in Tunisia, thunderously repeated in Egypt, is being echoed all over the Arab world and it’s a polite assertion with serious portent: “The People Demand The Fall of the Regime!” The laser-like focus on throwing out their own oppressive rulers, their secularism (Coptic Christians standing guard while Muslim protesters prayed in Tahrir Square), their civic-mindedness (distributing food, providing medical care and cleaning the Square) and their call for social justice and equity have created a totally new challenge for the ruling monarchs, military establishment and business elites.
Unable to fathom the younger generation that has grown up in an interconnected world watching satellite television about the democratising world with a sense of humiliation, the rulers look for dark foreign conspiracy. While activists quietly exchange tips on how to evade government surveillance or function in a teargas cloud, rulers fulminate against shadowy enemies. Ironically, the violent response by Middle East governments to peaceful demands for freedom and democracy has put the US and European allies in a spot. They are being asked to choose between their economic and security interests and their avowed support for the protesters’ democratic demands.
The swiftness of the Arab uprising has taken everybody by surprise. Yet the creation of the tinderbox lit in Tunis has been a long-time coming. The growing anger and frustration of Arab youth has been evident even to cautious UN bureaucrats. A 2009 UN report pointed to the massive unemployment of the youth whose alienation was palpable. Despite the fabulous wealth of their rulers, 20% of the population earns less than two dollars a day. The rulers’ failures in governance, it noted, has turned states into “a threat to (Arab) human security, instead of its chief support”. The teargas and bullets now being spent by shaken regimes can only add more fuel to the fire of new nationalism.