At this moment (May Day!), the outcome of the uprisings across the Arab world is radically uncertain. The massive demonstrations and the early successes in Tunisia and Egypt were exhilarating, and the courage of the Syrian demonstrators is inspiring—even though we know almost nothing about who they are. This is a revolutionary moment in the Middle East, and in most of the countries in upheaval, the rebels seem to be strongly committed to nonviolence and, at least in their public statements, to democracy. But the counterrevolution is close on the heels of the revolution, and no one knows what will happen next.
Still, I can say something about what I hope will happen. The Facebook rebels who led the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and who play some part, though it isn’t possible to say how large a part, in other countries too, represent an important (because they are young, active, committed, and media-savvy) but fairly small segment of the overall population. The number of “no” votes on the Egyptian referendum of March 19 was an early indication of their political weakness. They are not going to seize power in any Arab country. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, for if they did seize power they couldn’t hold it without a new version of authoritarianism—to which they are in principle opposed. So what I hope for is a new regime that is free of religious control, tolerant of an independent civil society, and willing to make room for argument and organization. A relatively free press, the growth of independent unions and oppositionist political parties, the right to assemble and demonstrate—these would be enough to indicate that the spirit of Tahrir Square has survived, and it would mean that the Facebook rebels had a future.
In Libya, we have to hope for the fall of the Qaddafis and a succession struggle that stops short of civil war. It is hard to imagine (and it would be hard to support) an American or European commitment to state-building in Tripoli. That has to be local work, though it would be good if rebels from Tunisia and Egypt found ways to help out in countries like Libya, Syria, or Yemen. Revolutions too often end badly, but cooperation across frontiers might make for better endings. As for us, liberal and leftist democrats in the West, we should search for our friends in the Arab world and give them material and political support. I don’t mean military support; there is no prospect of an International Brigade joining, say, the Libyan struggle. We can argue about what NATO should do (see the Dissent blog for some of the arguments), but we know that unions, parties, NGOs, and even little magazines also have work to do in defense of democracy.