History is rarely made according to schedule. On a few occasions – the 1997 handing over of Hong Kong to the Chinese, for example, we knew what was going to happen and we knew that it would be meaningful. But for the most part, it is the seemingly smallest of things that set enormous events in motion.
Almost two months ago, a frustrated and unemployed young man set himself on fire in Tunisia. He did so, it seems, out of the belief that it was, in fact, the one thing he could do of any significance in a country where his hope and his voice had been so long repressed.
The act incited a wave of protests in this North African country – protests that grew to the tipping point and which led to the ouster of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. What has now been termed the Jasmine Revolution, for its foundations within the hearts of the common people and because it succeeded, now shines as a beacon to repressed people throughout North Africa and the Middle East.
In essence, the desperate self-immolation of a 26 year old Tunisian has succeeded where US policy and UN sanctions have failed in the Arab world. History is often made by the most unlikely of people.
From Tunisia, the idea that a people can break free from the chains of a repressive government has spread to Jordan, Syria, Yemen and, most of all, Egypt. The people, driven by disparate motives and goals but united by the certainty that their current government is between them and the hope they have for their future, have shown us what it must have been like to see the first days of the Revolutionary war.
The faces of the people in Egypt mesmerize me. When I see a boy of no more than 15 standing in front of a tank, defiantly wielding a rock I cannot help but be overcome. What must these people have already endured for that fate; standing toe to toe with an M1-A Abrams main battle tank – to seem preferable?
It is in those moments,whether driven forward at this time by the Muslim Brotherhood or solely secular interests, that it is apparent to me that the human spirit, once shown the path, cannot be contained.
The power in these protests is not in their military strength – absent a watching world the Egyptian army could slaughter the protestors with little trouble. The power is not in their vehemence – the pro-Mubarak forces are as committed it seems, even if only out of self-interest.
The power is in their purity of purpose. They want hope. They want what we take for granted daily: self-determination.
Over the past few weeks, I have read and listened to commentary from all sides. It was my fellow columnist at Rock The Capital, Eric Epstein that made a point that has stuck with me ever since: in offering the Arab world only two models of government for so long – a dictator or a theocracy – we failed to both achieve our policy aim of a stable middle east and to win allies in the region.
The people themselves, repressed for generations and chafing as their national wealth is corruptly squandered by strongmen, have decided to find a third way. While we can debate what may come next (anyone who says he “knows” is either a fool or a liar, and likely both) and how best to stabilize the region, we must acknowledge and support the will of the people in these countries.
That is so because, if we want credibility to support revolutions in the future in places we want regime change – like Iran – we must show that we realize our interests are best served by countries led by the will of the people, not a dictator or “constitutional” tyrant.
And as Americans, don’t we have to side with any people looking to cast off an oppressive government? I think we do. Even if, messy self-determination leads to a government we cannot support, so long as it is freely chosen our principles demand that we support a free peoples’ right to make that choice themselves.
How do I know? Because the revolutionaries, who founded my country, told me so.
The people in the streets across the world are all chasing nothing more than “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as they define it to themselves.
And all they are doing is following the beacon we sent out to the world on July 4, 1776: “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
In the end, we must stand with the people.
(According to some reports, Hosni Mubarak has left Cairo, click on Rock The Capital to read more.)
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