It started in a most improbable way. A Tunisian vegetable street vendor named Muhammad Bouazizi was confronted by a policewoman on 17 December 2010. Bouazizi, age 26, was the sole bread winner for his widowed mother and seven siblings. He handed the policewoman the normal fine, equivalent to a day’s work. Instead of receiving it, she slapped Bouazizi on the face and cursed his dead father. Understandably incensed by this, Bouazizi went to the provincial office to complain. They were not interested. So within less than a hour, he returned to the place of the incident, poured petrol over his head and set himself alight.
This self-immolation of Muhammad Bouazizi kick started the Tunisian ‘Jasmine Revolution’ which, in a matter of weeks, led to the ousting of long-term President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. He had been at the helm of Tunisia since 1987. Soon the fire spread to neighbouring Egypt, where anger over the 29 year rule of Hosni Mubarak led to protests at Tahrir Square, Cairo. In just 18 days, Mubarak was gone.
From Morocco in the west to Iraq in the east, the Arab world has been rocked by spontaneous protests. Muammar Gaddafi in Libya has been deposed after 42 years of rule. Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, in power since 1978, left the country in June after being wounded in an assassination attempt. Protests have occurred in Oman, Bahrain, Jordan, Palestine, Morocco. Most surprising is Syria, where the Assad family regime faces continued resistance, despite the twin methods of concessions and coercion.
The western media looks at these Arab uprisings by the euphemistic term, ‘The Arab Spring.’ Part of the reason is the grass-roots spontaneity of these revolts: youth-led and internet-fueled. Their goals are lofty: democracy, freedom, and human rights. But this term ‘Arab Spring’ is not widely used in the Arabic language press. The normal term is ‘revolution.’ And the waves keep rolling on.
What does this all mean?
The ‘Arab Spring’ is nothing short of the making of a new Middle East. To see long-term dictators topple and hear rhetoric of democracy and freedom are exciting for us liberty-loving westerners.
Nevertheless, we need to have a reality check: will the ‘Arab Spring’ be like 1989, when Eastern Europe broke free from communism and the Soviet Union to become democratic, free market states? Or, more ominously, will it be like 1917, where the democratic orientated transitional government that replaced the Tsar in Russia (in February), was overthrown by Lenin and the Bolsheviks (in October), who imposed a totalitarian dictatorship for 74 years.
While it is too early to say which way the Arab states will go ... more democracy ... or a (religiously-motivated) dictatorship with a fresh face ... something needs to be mentioned. The Arab masses who are clamoring for democracy also see a central role for Islam and Sharia law in the body politic. The western world learned the hard way that when you mix ‘church and state,’ freedoms will suffer as a result. It appears the ‘Arab Street’ has not understood this important principle of separation. While the old regimes were autocratic and repressive, they did manage to keep political Islam at bay, thus preserving a semblance of ‘stability.’ If political Islam, like any religion, is mixed with the governmental process ... how will the western freedoms the Arabs sincerely desire come to pass?
Israel on the front lines
Israel, which is a functioning western-style democracy, is finding itself right in the middle of this Arab Spring. The key reason is geography. Israel sits on the land-bridge between Africa and Eurasia. Other factors come into place as well. The Jewish states strategic position has been greatly altered by the Arab Spring.
In 2010, Israel had three stable borders out of four: Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Only Lebanon, with Hizbullah playing a dominant role, was the question mark. Today, Israel may have only 1 stable border: Jordan. And even that is not assured, due to protests in Amman, both for governmental reform and to express their anti-Israel sentiment. Since Mubarak’s fall, the Sinai border between Israel and Egypt has been unstable. In May 2011, protesters tried to storm the border between Israel and Syria at the Golan Height. Lebanon remains Lebanon ... a cause for concern. And then there is Gaza, run by Hamas, where rockets continue rain down from time to time.
Beyond the borders is a worrisome trend with Turkey. Turkey, a long-time military ally, has become an implacable critic of Israel. It recently cancelled the military alliance with the Jewish state, placed sanctions, expelled the Israeli ambassador, downgraded diplomatic relations, and threatened to send warships to break the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza. We haven’t even touched on Iran, its nuclear program, and continued rhetoric about the disappearance of Israel.
What a difference a year makes ... a year of ‘Arab Spring.’
What will Israel Do?
There has been a lot of diplomatic activity ... and pressure ... for Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians, the so-called ‘land for peace’ formula. Yet, with unstable borders and unfriendly former allies, Israel will be less inclined to make concessions. They don’t even know if some of their neighbours will undergo radical regime change.
So with Israel failing to ‘cooperate,’ diplomatic pressure is likely to increase. Could it lead to the fulfillment of Psalm 83 and Zechariah 12? ‘Let us not sleep, as do others, but let us watch and be sober’--I Thessalonians 5:6.
For those in the Melbourne-area, come hear my most important Free Public Lecture yet. (just as 250 peope did in Perth on 16 September). Details are below: