For someone who has covered the Arab world for 40 years, the middle-class Tunisian revolt was exhilarating. Especially gripping was the fact that the youthful women demonstrators were unveiled, and the young men did not wear beards. They talked about practical things such as reforming the economy and ending corruption.
For a moment, one could dream. It almost seemed possible that Tunisia might produce the element whose absence has doomed so many Arab efforts to achieve democracy: a pragmatic political movement with concrete goals that is neither Islamist nor based on tribe or sect.
Mideast efforts at political reform have been repeatedly dashed because that Arab center was missing. The old pan-Arab nationalist and socialist parties have been discredited, and today’s strongest Arab political movements are Islamist. Pragmatic center-left or center-right parties are either too weak to matter or nipped in the bud by autocrats who fear they present a political threat.
Take Egypt: The sclerotic regime of Hosni Mubarak insists the only alternative to its misrule is an Islamist takeover. But the Mubarak government has created a self-fulfilling prophecy, leaving no political space for moderate movements to develop. Elections are rigged, and fake charges are cooked up to throw moderate political opponents in jail.
Similarly, in Syria, shoots of moderate opposition are crushed before they can develop, leaving the field to underground Islamists who are waiting patiently for their moment.
Elsewhere in the region, Arab moderates are thwarted by sectarian political parties. In Lebanon, a country with a large middle class that should be a poster child for democracy, hopes soared in 2005. Hundreds of thousands of young people poured into the streets to protest a car bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which most Lebanese attributed to Syria. The so-called March 15 movement, led by Hariri’s businessman son, Saad, seemed poised to create a new Lebanon, freed from Syrian interference.
But Lebanon’s moderate middle ran up against its sectarian politics. Hezbollah, a Shiite religious party that was backed by Iran and Syria and was willing to use violence, was able to outflank the March 15 movement. Last week, Hezbollah brought down Saad Hariri’s government in protest against his support for a U.N. probe that reportedly has found Hezbollah to be complicit in Rafik Hariri’s murder. Lebanon’s sectarian politics make it impossible to operate a normal democratic system in which parties compete on platforms and issues.
Sectarianism also dominates political life in Baghdad. Everyone remembers the Iraqi election of 2005, when old ladies in black veils held up fingers stained with purple ink. Americans didn’t realize that these women weren’t celebrating democracy, but rather the triumph of their Shiite religious sect.
Iraq’s major political parties are all sectarian — Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish — in a system (which the United States helped devise) that makes forming a government hard and compromise often impossible. Iraqi cabinet ministers are appointed by sect rather than competence.
So it’s no wonder that the Tunisian revolt has galvanized the angry youth of the region. The Arab political landscape has been so frozen that many young Arabs have despaired about their futures. Their plight was perfectly exemplified by the young college graduate who triggered the Tunisian upheaval. He immolated himself after being abused by police as he sold vegetables, the only job he could find. Several other young men in the region have echoed his desperate act.
However, in Tunisia, which is not riven by ethnic or religious splits, the young rebels are students, businessmen, professionals, or members of a strong trade-union movement. They represent Arab middle and working classes that want justice — economic reforms, an end to the hideous corruption of the ruling family — and a chance to pick new leaders.
Yet even in Tunisia, it’s not yet clear who speaks for the moderate middle that ousted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Most opposition groups were crushed by the former regime. Exiled Islamists are returning and may be the quickest to regroup.
The question swirling around the Tunisian rebellion is whether it can finally provide an example of an Arab country where moderate, democratic forces — not dictatorial, not radical Islamist — take power. The answer to that question matters desperately to the entire Arab world — and to us.