In December 2011, a fruit peddler in Sidi Bouzid, a medium-size town in the hilly center of Tunisia, set himself on fire to protest the casual abuses of the police and bureaucrats of an impenetrable, authoritarian, and corrupt state.
Ordinarily, this would have been a small, barely noticed event. The government-controlled media might have mentioned it along with local news like traffic accidents and criminal arrests, without context or meaning. However, without anyone noticing it, technology had changed the world of communication, and with it, it seemed, the world of politics. Pictures of the protest were taken, and transmitted, with cell phones. They were posted on Facebook and other social media sites. The story was e-mailed, tweeted, and blogged about. Word of mouth had received a major electronic enhancement. Person-to-person communication had broken the bonds of geography. Chat was now national. Actually, it was transnational—it had gone global.
Demonstrations began. Every act of repression went viral.
The Arab Spring had been born.
It was astonishing.
The people of North Africa and the Middle East had never known self-rule. They'd never been able to say or read or hear what they really thought, without fear of arrest. They'd gone from autocracies to being colonies of foreign powers, and after the European powers were forced out, they were replaced by emirs, kings, and presidents-for-life. In every case, they were police states with arbitrary justice and without real individual rights. And they were still, for the most part, client states of some foreign power—the United States, the Soviet Union, their old colonial masters—and of the financial interests of those powers. Even worse, these postcolonial nations failed to develop economically. Their elites normally became extremely rich while the vast majority struggled, and across the board, about 40 percent lived at or below the poverty line—defined, of course, much lower than in the West.
Suddenly, these people had lost their fear. They were speaking out. Demonstrating. Dictators—those presidents-for-life—began to fall and flee.
There had been the collapse of the Soviet Union, with Eastern Europe bursting out of the commie closet into the sunlight of democratic capitalism. Obviously we were watching round two of Victory of Our Way of Life. The whole world was happy. At least the Western establishment. And their media.
Then came the first wave of elections. Who would these new democratic leaders be? It was all so thrilling. And then they turned out to be Islamists! The Ennahda Party in Tunisia. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Oh, that was disturbing. Probably anti-American. Part of the whole our-values-vs.-their-values schism between freedom and repression. Actually, nobody got very upset over the Ennahda Party. It was odd to pronounce. It didn't sound scary. But "Muslim Brotherhood," that had a sort of beyond-borders-operate-everywhere-against-the-West sound to it.
Meanwhile, one of the worst of dictators still standing, Bashar al Assad, came up with a brilliant propaganda ploy. He was stuck in a narrative about citizens nonviolently seeking redress from the oppression of a dictator who enforced his will with the most notoriously vicious secret police in the world. It was not good. President Obama said "Assad must go" in a way that made it sound way less controversial than the existence of climate change. He released the most radical and dangerous inmates from Syria's political prisons in order to make the opposition appear more dangerously radical. Yes, they picked up arms. And the Western media picked up on it. The New York Times itself ran a series of stories that explained that the opposition to Assad was a very mixed bag; some of the elements of the opposition did dreadful things, and perhaps were the sorts that we, here in America, would want to take over Syria. Meantime, Assad got support from Russia, which was looking to muscle flex anywhere in the world; Iran, since the rebels were largely Sunni; and the Gulf States, who are disturbed by the idea of any autocrat falling from power.
The story was beginning to change. From the people (good) against the dictators (evil), to Islamists, who might be fanatics determined to destroy the West like on 9/11 (not so good), against autocrats, who at least are stable—and Western powers have been quite happy dealing with such folk for a time, a much more ambiguous tale indeed.
The basic idea of democracy is that miserable compromise with the promise of relief through ballots is a better deal than insisting on righteousness and demanding a trial by fire. However inept and ideologically irritating Egypt's President Morsi was, the option for unelecting him was obviously and clearly ready to arrive. It required only some patience. That was one of the major reasons to have a revolution.
Instead, Morsi was removed the old-fashioned way: a military coup led by General Sisi, who did it in the name of democracy. It was one of the great Orwellian moments of recent years. The media took it quite seriously and chewed over how a coup against an Islamist probably was the true democratic alternative. Because, well, they were Islamists and having been elected didn't change that one damn bit. The general declared all of the Muslim Brotherhood to be terrorists. He outlawed them and began rounding them up and throwing them in jail. Including Morsi, who is imprisoned still.
The new narrative—the-Mediterranean-in-renaissance Arab Spring—was gone. The old narrative, War on Terror, was back. That justified entirely new dictators or retaining the old autocrats. But in order to get there, it unleashed one of the most terrible of genies, the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. Yes, North Africa and the Middle East are being torn apart by barbarians with automatic weapons, murdering for power, for money, often killing in the name of Allah, but mostly, it seems, because they can. The joy of murder, the sheer thrill of executing your most hateful other—once individuals can find a group that supports such blood lust—should not be underestimated.
Except for Tunisia. Where the Arab Spring was born. And it lives, still.