Saturday, January 29, 2011

Taking Freedom Seriously

One of the most important aspects of the demonstrations going on in countries across the Middle East has been that people are willing to challenge tyrannical governments through protest. In Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Lebanon, thousands of people are coming out en masse to protest their governments’ actions. These mass demonstrations have already toppled the regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia on January 14th and are having a dramatic impact on President Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. But why, after all these years, have people started to protest? Are protests an effective way to bring about positive change? And what implications does this have for other tyrannical regimes in the Middle East?

These protests have generally been explained as mass uprisings by lay people who are fed up with living under despotic and sclerotic governments. Some commenters have explained that the roots of these crises are people’s desire for freedom. Others have argued that these protests have a material basis, and that what people really want are jobs and lower prices for staple goods. A debate rages on about whether these protests are primarily about political liberty or economic security. Although it is unclear which of the two factors is more important, what is preeminently clear is that both of this issues matter and that there is tremendous dissatisfaction within the body politic.

But can protests bring about positive change? The answer again is unclear. There are examples of protests that have led to successful revolutions. For example, American colonists protested British taxation policies which, in turn, led to the successful America Revolution. More recently, decolonization across the world has led to the development of dozens of new countries. Hundreds of millions of people in Africa and Asia have been living in independent states for several decades now with mixed results. Some of these societies—like Malaysia—have prospered and are developing rapidly. Unfortunately, many other postcolonial societies ended up with regimes as tyrannical—if not worse—than their former colonial masters. However, what will ultimately determine the success or failure of these current protests is the degree to which these popular mass movements can gain control of the institutions of power in society and use these institutions for the greater good.

All of this suggests a complex future for the states across the Middle East. Countries like Egypt, with an unpopular government backed by the US, will have to reform or face revolution. At this point, however, it seems that incremental reform has become impossible. With protesters out in force from Cairo to Beriut and everywhere in between, we are entering a new chapter in the history of the modern Middle East. Tyrannical regimes in the region should be worried because they will have to answer to their people. It is my hope that the people of the region will reshape their states and create better societies for their own future.

I am encouraged by the fact that people across the Middle East are protesting and challenging tyranny. Far too often, people are cowed by traditional power-elites and do not take their freedom seriously. So I tip my hat to my brothers and sisters across the Middle East and support their peaceful fight for freedom. Liberté, égalité, fraternité for all!