Genuine revolutions, those that define an epoch and change societies for ever, are long in the making. They are the culmination of many different influences, pressures and aspirations that brew for decades, but then burst onto the world stage in a single convulsive moment that seems to come out of the blue. So it is with the Arab Spring.
For foreign correspondents there are the dangerous but hard to resist calls to make predictions and cast iron conclusions. I have been in this position several times before: after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the death of Yasser Arafat, the day Baghdad fell and many other times. At each of those moments I’ve reminded myself of the famous quote by Mao Zedong’s right hand man and the first Premiere of Communist China, Zhou Enlai. When asked what he thought of the French Revolution of 1789, he replied “It’s too soon to say.” The same applies with what we are witnessing now across the Arab world - but I feel there are already some things about which we can be certain.
It began in Tunis with the overthrow of President Ben Ali. I vividly remember standing in the central square watching a kaleidoscopic crowd of Tunisians from every walk of life and every generation chanting a pulsating refrain: “Freedom is ours, we will take it.” There were grandmothers in conservative headscarves, businessmen, unemployed youths and young girls with blonde highlighted hair, all voicing the same aspiration. In that instance I forgot about my assignment, whatever commentary I had to deliver to the camera, I just felt profoundly moved by what I was witnessing. For the first time in many years of reporting the Middle East, here was the other Arabia that had for so long been obscured and drowned out by dictatorship, religious dogma and an economic system built on nepotism and cronyism. So what is this ‘other Arabia’ revealed by the Arab Spring?
If there is one thing you learn from reading this, let it be this statistic: almost 70% of the 350 million people that make up the Arab world are under 35 years old. Despite the snapshots you often see on western TV news, this generation does not see itself in the way the West does. They do not have an obsession with sectarian traditions, Ba’ath party socialism and anti-western demonstrations. And there’s one very important reason for this: because before the Arab Spring, there was another seismic change in the region - the Media Revolution.
It started with Al Jazeera in 1997, but now there are hundreds of channels across the Middle East, from MTV to racy sitcoms that mimic Friends and Frasier. The most watched programme in the Arab world is X Factor - Xseer Al Najah, which means ‘The Essence of Success.’ Before that the most popular show, at the height of the insurgency in Iraq, was Arab Pop Idol.
An independent, brave and iconoclastic media has swept the region and given rise to new aspirations, not dictated by ruling families and dicatorships. What’s more, through the media Arabs are able to see and empathise with each others lives: Egyptians know how Jordanians live, Yemenis know how Algerians feel, and so on. Young Arabs also see the repression, corruption, dashed hopes and youth culture emerging from Iraq to Morocco - and what’s more they are able to communicate about it. This free media, from TV stations to Facebook and Twitter cannot be controlled by state institutions. That is their genius. They are here to stay, bringing to an end the ability of authoritarian regimes to hide repression - whether it’s anti-government riots in Syria, protests in Bahrain or opposition to Ghaddafi.
The media revolution has led to the other permanent change: the death of fear. Standing in that square in Tunis, that’s what I found most moving. Suddenly a nation that had been afraid of its rulers lost the crushing feeling of helplessness and dared to stand up for itself. “How many of us can they shoot,” one elderly man told me during a demonstration, “these soldiers and policemen, they have relatives, will they shoot all of us for the sake of this tyrant and his family?” The answer, of course, was no. That is the single greatest fear for all the rulers in the Middle East. When the whole nation loses its fear of you, who will continue to the bitter end to preserve your rule? Even seemingly immovable tyrants backed by the West like Mubarak found out that when your people no longer fear you - everyone, even your army and your western backers will desert you.
I cannot predict what will happen next; whether the Syrian authorities will survive or whether NATO and the Arab League will support the opposition, or whether the uprisings will spread to such critical western interests as Saudi Arabia. But what I am certain of is that this generation of young Arabs want more control over their lives. They want greater economic opportunities and freedoms of the kind they see in other parts of the world on their TV screens, and they are beginning to lose their fear of regimes that can no longer contain and control what people read and say and think.
What I find so frustrating is when people in the West talk about the Arab Spring as a dangerous and destabilising development. “Will the Muslim Brotherhood get in? What will happen to oil supplies? Might Islamists seize power?” There is a sense that the changes are to be feared.
In fact this is the best opportunity the West has had to remake its relationship with the Middle East for a very long time. It may take a long time and there will be many steps backwards along the way, but we must not give the impression of fearing the change. We should try to be a midwife to it.