When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in rural Tunisia on December 17, 2010, he set in motion a dynamic that goes far beyond the overthrow of individual dictators. We are witnessing nothing less than the awakening, throughout the Arab world, of several phenomena that are critical for stable statehood: the citizen, the citizenry, legitimacy of authority, a commitment to social justice, genuine politics, national self-determination and, ultimately, true sovereignty. It took hundreds of years for the United States and Western Europe to develop governance and civil society systems that affirmed those principles, even if incompletely or erratically, so we should be realistic in our expectations of how long it will take Arab societies to do so.
The countries where citizens are more actively agitating or fighting for their rights—Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen are the most advanced to date—have very different local conditions and forms of governance, with ruling elites displaying a wide range of legitimacy in the eyes of their people. Governments have responded to the challenge in a variety of ways, from the flight of the Tunisian and Egyptian leaderships to violent military repression in Syria, Libya and Bahrain, to the attempt to negotiate limited constitutional transformations in Jordan, Morocco and Oman. A few countries that have not experienced major demonstrations—Algeria and Sudan are the most significant—are likely to experience domestic effervescence in due course. Only the handful of wealthy oil producers (like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates) seem largely exempt, for now, from this wave of citizen demands.
Two words capture every important dimension of the Arab Awakening: “humiliation” and “legitimacy.” They explain why the Arab region is erupting, and what needs to be done to satisfy popular demands. The typical Arab citizen, with few exceptions, has felt humiliated in recent decades by his or her government. Hundreds of millions of Arabs feel they have been denied both their human rights and their citizenship rights, the result of decades of socioeconomic stresses and political deprivations. These include petty and large-scale corruption; police brutality; abuse of power; favoritism; unemployment; poor wages; unequal opportunities; inefficient or nonexistent public services; lack of freedom of expression and association; state control of media, culture and education; and many other dimensions of the modern Arab security state. At the same time, ordinary men and women in countries across the region have seen small groups of families in the ruling elite grow fabulously rich simply because of their connections.
Young people sparked the revolt because they are generally the ones who suffer the most grievous consequences of the failed political order. They are unable to enjoy life’s full opportunities and rewards, in terms of education, work, income and material well-being. Millions of young Arabs took to the streets this year because they refused to acquiesce in either the legacy of stunted citizenship or the prospect of limited life opportunities. Their increasingly mediocre and irrelevant educations meant they had difficulty finding jobs that pay enough to live decently, get married and start a family. They saw in front of them an entire lifetime of restricted opportunities and stolen rights. When they tried to speak out against unfair and corrupt practices, they were prevented from doing so by police and security agencies.