Recent events first in Tunisia and now in Egypt demonstrate that there is no Arab cultural exception to the broad desire for freedom around the world.
The act of self-immolation that set off these dramatic events was that of a Tunisian vegetable seller who had his cart repeatedly confiscated by the government and then was slapped and insulted by a policewoman when he went to complain. People want political rights because they want their governments to treat them with dignity, a wish that obviously reverberates throughout the Arab world.
The revolt does not seem to be driven by the poor, the marginalized or the religious, but by the middle-class—technologically savvy Tunisians and Egyptians who don’t have opportunities for meaningful work or political participation. They want to join the rest of the world and not cut themselves off from it.
But why is the Arab world coming so late to a democracy party that Latin Americans, Eastern Europeans, Asians and Africans first started attending 20 years ago ? Part of the answer is the deliberate strategy that authoritarian leaders like Hosni Mubarak have pursued—of gutting liberal opposition and permitting the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood to operate just enough to scare the United States and other Western backers.
This strategy worked on a series of American administrations that paid lip service to the need for democracy but were never willing to push their ally, for fear of empowering the Islamist opposition. Those chickens are now coming home to roost.
If Mr. Mubarak indeed leaves office and there is a clean break with his regime—meaning that longtime aides like Omar Suleiman, now the vice president, leave power too—then Egyptians’ central task will be the unglamorous one of institution-building.
Democracy does not magically spring to life once the dictator is gone, or even after the first free and fair election has taken place. The color revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgystan, as well as the U.S. interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, invariably disappointed their hopeful early backers by not producing effective democratic governance.
Facebook and Twitter are great at mobilizing flash mobs to bring down tyrants, but they are less useful in building political parties, forming coalitions, negotiating political programs or making officials honest.
At present, the best-organized forces in Egypt are the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. Egyptians who want a free and democratic future had better get busy organizing themselves if those groups are not to inherit the future.