An old Syrian joke tells the story of a man who gets in a traffic accident involving his own beat-up car and an immense and shining limousine. The poor man leaps from his vehicle and begins hurling obscene and colourful abuse at the limousine’s driver and its unseen occupant. After several minutes of this, the limousine’s back window slides open a crack and a voice speaks from the darkness inside: “Do you know who I am?”
When the man says he does not, the occupant pushes a card through the window identifying himself as Hafez al-Assad, the late dictator of Syria, who has since been replaced by his son, Bashar.
The man glances at the card for a moment and then replies: “Do you know who I am?”
Puzzled, the dictator admits he does not. “Thank God,” says the man, and flees into the surrounding crowds as fast as he can.
The joke works in societies where citizens are crippled by fear of those who rule them. Egypt, until days ago, was like that. So was most of the Middle East. But this, with the overthrow of two dictators in less than a month, is changing. Fear is ebbing away, and its absence will transform the region.
The old order of authoritarian strongmen suppressing a population that is resentful but too afraid to revolt is over. Some dictators will fall. Others will redouble their repression. And some will scramble to enact enough reforms to placate newly emboldened citizens, likely diluting their power base and weakening their hold on power in the process. The region will not look the same in five years. Egypt and Tunisia are just the beginning.
“I HATE TO be chauvinistic about this, but Egyptians are the Americans of the Middle East,” says Egyptian dissident Mahmoud Salem, who blogs under the moniker Sandmonkey, and whose activism in the midst of the recent demonstrations resulted in his arrest and detention. In other words, what happens in Egypt matters across the region. It is the most populous nation in the Middle East, the traditional bastion of Arab power. Egypt’s borders cannot contain explosions of change within.
Some of the uprising’s ramifications were tangible and immediate. King Abdullah II of Jordan sacked his prime minister and cabinet. In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been in power for 32 years, promised not to run again and will not bequeath power to his son. Bashar al-Assad of Syria lifted a ban on the social networking site Facebook. All these moves were designed to quell or avoid popular unrest that erupted after Egyptians poured into Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Anti-government protests have also rocked Algeria and Bahrain, where at least two protesters were killed in clashes with security forces.
In Iran on the Monday following Mubarak’s fall, anti-regime protesters defied the government to fill the streets of several major cities by the tens of thousands. They were confronted with tear gas and batons. At least two people died. Reports from demonstrators suggest the number might have been higher. Conservative members of Iran’s parliament called for opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi to be tried and executed.
While it was the successful revolution in Tunisia that triggered the street demonstrations in Egypt last month, Iranians also revolted nearly two years ago, following the seemingly rigged election that returned to power President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Although these demonstrations were brutally suppressed, “The protests in Iran showed Egyptian organizers how to use the modern social tools, social networking, Twitter, citizen journalism, to organize a revolution,” says Potkin Azarmehr, an Iranian democratic activist living in London. He notes that the Egyptians, in turn, showed Iranian dissidents that once a massive crowd is assembled, as happened in Tehran on June 15, 2009, it shouldn’t disperse. Egyptian democrats never relinquished their hold on Tahrir Square and were ultimately triumphant.
In the midst of the Egyptian uprising, Wael Ghonim—a Google executive who helped organize the initial protests, was detained for 10 days, and whose eventual release reignited the opposition movement—paid tribute to democratic activists in Iran. “I would tell Iranians to learn from the Egyptians, as we have learned from you guys, that at the end of the day, with the power of people, we can do whatever we want to do,” he told the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. “If we unite our goals, if we believe, then all our dreams can come true.”
The lessons at least one Egyptian activist took from Iran were not as uplifting. “We saw Neda Agha-Soltan, people being killed and shot,” Mostafa Hussein, a blogger, psychiatrist, and postgraduate student, told Maclean’s, referring to the young woman whose murder during anti-regime protests in Tehran became an iconic image of Iran’s 2009 uprising. “It informed myself as an activist that what we’re doing as activists is a burden, and we’ll pay a heavy cost if we do anything like that, and it might not finish successfully.”