In January 1969, Jan Palach, a young philosophy student, set himself aflame in Prague's Wenceslas Square to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia five months earlier. Paradoxical though it may seem, his self-sacrifice was not intended as an act of despair. On the contrary, it was meant to inspire hope and resilience in his fellow Czechs. Decades later, Palach would be remembered as one of the inspirational precursors of Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution. Today a square is named in his honor in Prague's Old Town section.
Some 41 years later, a North African youth with a computer-science degree, Mohamed Bouazizi, committed a parallel act, immolating himself in the rural town of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. The immediate pretext was his harassment by local authorities, who had prevented him from making a living selling fruit and vegetables. Yet most young Tunisians understood that the real reason for his despondency was a widespread and amorphous generational hopelessness. Tunisia's resident autocrat, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, had reigned for 23 years. Youth unemployment was rampant. Prospects for upward social mobility and meaningful political reform were nonexistent. In the weeks that followed Bouazizi's death, six other Tunisians would mimic his tragic finale, as would many others throughout the Arab world.
In retrospect, Bouazizi's death was merely a catalyst. What happened next was remarkable—and, when viewed in terms of its possible long-term repercussions for political culture in the region, of world historical importance. Sizable uprisings or protests ensued in eight other North African or Middle Eastern countries: Algeria, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Sudan, Yemen, and, of course, Egypt, where, during the first week of February, hundreds of thousands of people jammed the streets of Cairo and other cities to protest Hosni Mubarak's iron-fisted 30 years of rule. Visible among the placards were signs that read: "Tunisia is the solution!"
Never before have Arab citizens taken to the streets in such numbers, and with such persistence, to vent their displeasure with the political status quo. Scholars of international relations and specialists in the region have struggled to find relevant historical parallels. One optimistic, yet plausible, point of comparison might be the wave of democratic transitions that swept Southern Europe (Greece, Portugal, and Spain), South America (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay), and Eastern Europe during the 1970s, 80s, and early 90s—a phenomenon that the political scientist Samuel Huntington dubbed the Third Wave of democratization. Could it be that we're witnessing a transformative Fourth Wave in the Middle East—a chain of loosely coordinated popular uprisings that, in years to come, will introduce the virtues of self-government to a region that, since decolonization, has known only the humiliations and indignities of authoritarian rule? At long last, the Arab street has spoken. The regional regimes are trembling.
The Tunisian uprising has been dubbed the "Jasmine Revolution," in solidarity with the so-called color revolutions in Georgia (Rose), Ukraine (Orange), and Kyrgyzstan (Pink). Yet Tunisia, with its 10 million inhabitants, is, by North African standards, a relatively well-off and self-contained nation. Egypt, conversely, with a population of 80 million, is the Middle East's demographic and geopolitical pivot. As in Tunisia, the first wave of Egyptian demonstrators was young, politically frustrated, and underemployed. The official salary of state employees in Egypt is a paltry 400 pounds per month—about $65. Many of the activists receive their news from Al Jazeera and are avid users of social media: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube. Access to nongovernment-controlled news and information has made Egyptian youth, if not cosmopolitan, at least worldly. They have been exposed to international cultural and political trends in a way that distinguishes them from previous generations.
So what are their aims? Egyptian civil society, going back to the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser (1952-1970) and Anwar Sadat (1970-1981), has been a tightly regulated entity, so it would be an exaggeration to view the protesters as politically mature. But a number of specific themes have punctuated their discourse, lending it an incipient plausibility and coherence. Their demands have for the most part revolved around questions of popular sovereignty. They want a prompt and wholesale break with the old regime, not only because of its corruption, repression, unresponsiveness, and stagnation, but most of all because they have no control over the day-to-day conduct of their own lives.
This sentiment of unconditional revolt, which Albert Camus described so well in his 1951 book, The Rebel, is often the first step on the road to democratic transformation. Among the Cairo demonstrators, one repeatedly heard observation is that, for the first time, they feel proud to be Egyptians: a statement of egalitarian mutual belonging that carries a distinctly democratic resonance. When looting broke out after the initial protests, self-defense committees were formed at the neighborhood level—shades of democratic self-organization—which helped keep theft and other foul play to a minimum.
The banners that demonstrators have held aloft tell a good part of the story. "A revolution, of the youth"—the cry of a generation that had been deprived of a future but is now demanding change. Sixty percent of the Egyptian population is under 30; during their lifetimes, they have known no ruler other than Mubarak. "A revolution of the people, not the parties"—suggesting that democratic legitimacy is a precondition and sine qua non of all future politics. As the Lebanese journalist Sateh Noureddine observed: "People are learning that the yearning for freedom, for dignity, for justice, and for employment is a legitimate ambition. This is a historic moment, and it is teaching the Arab world everything. They are learning that if they take to the streets, they can accomplish their goals." While the outcome of the uprising is impossible to foresee—further outbreaks of violence could make a Velvet-type transition impossible—many of the inflections and hues in evidence are redolent of authentic democratic beginnings. With each passing day, the demonstrators seem increasingly aware of the fact that they are struggling not only for Egypt's future, but also for the entire Arab world.
Equally momentous has been the deafening silence of fundamentalist Islamists during the initial wave of protests. (The controversial Muslim Brotherhood joined in only belatedly, after prodding by its own youth members.) Middle East specialists have generally believed that political Islam represented the logical successor to a misbegotten secular-Arab nationalism—a movement that was twice humiliated by military defeats to archenemy Israel. The rise of Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran, Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front, Lebanon's Hezbollah, and Hamas, in Gaza, only confirmed such fears. From an American point of view, Mubarak's signal virtue was his ability to keep Islamic fundamentalism at bay.
But Egypt's protesters seem united in their aversion to political Islam. One news source reported on a Cairo imam who encouraged his flock to go out into the streets and "demonstrate for democracy." In essence, Egypt's youth have no interest in exchanging a loathsome secular despotism for an equally intolerant and oppressive fundamentalist Islamic regime—although they apparently have few objections to allowing the Muslim Brothers to maintain their extensive, grass-roots social-aid network, or to including them in an anti-Mubarak political alliance.
The protesters seem to realize that the bellicose rhetoric of Hezbollah, Hamas, or Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will do nothing to resolve the country's pressing economic and political problems. "I hate the Brotherhood," declared Mohamed Ismail, a 23-year-old engineer. "I hate Islamism. I don't want an Iranian regime. I want freedom and democracy." "We don't want ... the Muslim Brotherhood, and we don't want the ruling party," said Mohammed Nagi, a 30-year old protester. "You feel like everyone is walking on his own, speaking for himself, because there's no group that represents us." Many of the demonstrators have noted Turkey's rise to economic and political prominence under the moderate Islamic leadership of the Justice and Development Party as a model of a modern, successful, secular nation-state. But the differences are equally important: Turkey is a non-Arab nation with a 90-year tradition of the separation of mosque and state.
Samuel Huntington coined the phrase "Third Wave" in 1991, and it has become a common term among scholars. (One of the ironies is that the main proponent of the relatively optimistic Third Wave thesis thereafter championed the "Clash of Civilizations" paradigm, forecasting enduring enmity between the West and the Muslim world.) Although the exact periodization is a matter of some dispute, the two previous waves roughly correspond to the democratic revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, and the post-World War I democratic governments enfranchised by the Treaty of Versailles. The 1980s were significant insofar as they witnessed not only the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, but also peaceful democratic transitions in South America, the Philippines, and South Korea. South Africa would follow suit in 1994. Analysts often refer to the 1990s as a period of "democratic consolidation."
Democratic waves, however, are prone to regression. The 18th-century democratic revolutions in France and the United States had very few 19th-century successors. Even France, progenitor of international human rights and republicanism, was unable to secure its own democracy until the late 1870s. It is worth noting that on the eve of World War I, continental Europe had only three bona fide republics: France, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. And in recent years, Russia has experienced a profound antidemocratic relapse. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has declared that while democracy might be appropriate for some nations, it is unsuitable for Russia. A careful observer of events in Georgia and Ukraine, he has made it clear that there will be no color revolutions in Russia.
Nevertheless, the political developments that are shaking the Arab world might mark the beginning of a Fourth Wave of democratization—a movement that eventually might encompass much of North Africa and the Middle East. To be sure, prospects for democratization remain meager in the more politically isolated and repressive states of the Persian Gulf. But in both Tunisia and Egypt, despite many uncertainties, there is reason for optimism. Young people have explicitly rejected both secular and clerical autocracy and have focused instead on a "third way": a course that demands democratic legitimacy and civic freedom. The basic message of these revolts is that government must no longer exist for the sake of ruling elites. It must exist for the benefit of all people, to whom it must also be held legally and politically responsible.
The tenor and thrust of these demonstrations suggest that Arab civil society is, to use Kant's apt formulation, emerging from a condition of "tutelage" or "immaturity" and striving toward political self-determination. In "Perpetual Peace" (1795), Kant declared that "the civil constitution of every state must be republican," since he believed that republicanism was the only form of political rule consistent with the values of individual and collective self-realization. In light of recent events, it would seem that some of the basic lessons of Western political culture—precepts that have been painstakingly realized over the course of the past two centuries—are now spreading, albeit fitfully, to the Arab world.
Of course, there remain ample grounds for skepticism. What role will the returning members of the banned Islamist party, Al Nahda, play in Tunisia's future? In Egypt, will the Muslim Brotherhood try to fill the gaping political void that is very likely to emerge in the wake of Mubarak's eventual departure? The army remains Egypt's most trusted social institution, and by pledging not to use force against the throngs of demonstrators it has undoubtedly gained additional respect. Yet if Egypt's economy and social fabric unravels amid prolonged political uncertainty, will the army continue to be a neutral bystander, or will it be tempted to intervene in order to restore stability?
By virtue of his insistence on serving out his fifth term in office, Mubarak, for his part, missed a golden opportunity for a graceful exit. Instead he sent out armed thugs to assault protesters and foreign journalists. In so doing, he ensured that he will be remembered as a tyrant who cared more about his own self-preservation than about the welfare of the Egyptian people.
Caveats notwithstanding, the events that are unfolding across the Middle East represent a watershed. Ben Ali ignominiously fled Tunisia; Mubarak has pledged to leave office in September; there is no returning to the status quo ante. As the journalist Anthony Shadid recently observed: "Egypt's revolution is far from decided, but the country will never be the same. As the government begins to fall back on itself, inciting fears of foreigners, mobilizing provocateurs and cracking down on its opposition, it faces an ever fiercer revolutionary fervor, with ever more sweeping demands."
Hegel would describe these developments as "world historical," insofar as they transform the way we think not only about Middle Eastern politics but also about the general flow of history. Since September 11, 2001, observers have wondered when, if ever, the virtues of political liberalism might seize hold of the Muslim world. With the twin uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, we now have at our disposal a preliminary indication.
Hegel's Lectures on the Philosophy of History has been roundly derided as naïve, since it viewed history teleologically as "progress in the consciousness of freedom." What sense would it make to confer meaning on history given its chaos, its horrors, and its innumerable attendant atrocities? However, if the Jasmine Revolutions in Tunisia and now Egypt have staying power, if they can inspire political developments in neighboring states, it might well be time to give Hegel's work a second look.
Richard Wolin teaches history and political science at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His most recent book is The Wind From the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s (Princeton University Press, 2010).