Learn to Love The Revolution

Five lessons from change in the Arab world

  • Yuri Kozyrev for TIME

    Bahraini protesters regain Pearl Square after a military crackdown

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    Economic issues, too, will manifest themselves in different ways in different places. A detestation of corruption is a constant throughout the states in the region that have seen disturbances, and for good reason. But it is likely to be a particularly significant driver of change in Libya. This is a nation whose small population, mineral wealth, cultural history and proximity to rich European markets should long ago have made it an economic powerhouse like one of the Gulf states, but instead it has become a kleptocracy run for the benefit of Muammar Gaddafi, his family and their supporters.

    3. Patience Is a Virtue
    Given the variety of social and economic circumstances in the Arab world and the rapid devolution from smiling faces in Tunisia to the awful violence in Libya, there is a natural temptation to fear the worst: to see years of instability stretching ahead for the region, instability that, as the U.S. learned on Sept. 11, 2001, can seep beyond the Middle East's borders.

    The wiser counsel, surely, is patience. During the European revolutions of 1989, it was common to look to the Middle East and wonder why it seemed immune to the democratic wave. But if anything has been abundantly proved in the past month, it is that there is no "Arab exception," no iron rule that specifies that the desires that motivate human society anywhere — a right to choose your rulers, a hope that your children will lead better lives than you, a search for prosperity and happiness — are somehow absent from the Middle East. Why on earth should they be?

    That does not mean that the postrevolutionary dispensation in the region will be happy everywhere. Though romantics want revolutions to have charismatic leaders, successful ones channel the revolutionary instinct into habits of effective government through institutions that have a degree of popular legitimacy. (Lucky Poland, to have had both a political organization — Solidarity — and a church hierarchy with such legitimacy in 1989.) Where such institutions do not exist, troubles brew. Russia after 1990 was a country with little organized political opposition and a compromised church and army. Little wonder that oligarchs, criminals and veterans of the Soviet security services rushed to fill the vacuum.

    4. Institutions Really Matter
    Institutional arrangements are important in the middle East precisely because of the nature of the revolutionary transformation. Organized and brave the young people who have driven change may be, but a crowd in Tahrir Square cannot govern Egypt, nor can a Facebook page or Twitter account — at least not yet. More is needed. Though they may have been hobbled by years of autocracy, Egypt and Tunisia have parliaments, political parties, judges and lawyers, labor unions and a press whose members want to do what free journalists do elsewhere. All of that augurs well for the chance of building systems of governance that are both effective and — just as important — accountable to the people.

    The contrast with Libya and Yemen could hardly be more striking. In Gaddafi's madness, Libya has been rendered almost devoid of the appurtenances of state power. (It is officially a Jamahiriya, or "state of the masses.") Yemen has been a unified state only since 1990; poverty-ridden and threatened by regional uprisings, it could face a rocky postrevolutionary trajectory.

    5. Let Them Do It Themselves
    Yet even Libya and Yemen have one great thing going for them. When change happens in rough parts of the world, it is easy for those who live in happier lands — such as the U.S. and Europe — to ask condescendingly what they can do to help. And help they surely can — Europe perhaps more than the U.S., since it controls the vital spigots that modulate the flow of people and goods from the Middle East to its most proximate and important market.

    But the key thing about the Arab revolution — the reason we can dream that even Libya may turn out fine — is that Arabs are doing it for themselves. This revolution is a regional one, a movement in which each nation's young people have learned tactics, technological fixes and slogans from one another. A local TV channel — al-Jazeera, not the BBC or CNN — has been a principal megaphone. The unplanned system of mutual support that has developed may turn out to have done more to bind the region together than the top-down attempts to create pan-Arabism in the 1950s. This year, says Rogan, "Arabs have been inspired by the example of fellow Arabs. What matters in the Arab world matters to Arabs." For that reason, it matters to us all.

    This article originally appeared in the March 7, 2011 issue of TIME.

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