Courtesy Reuters

The New Arab Revolt


In late April 1974, a group of young military officers in Portugal launched a coup against Marcello Caetano, their country’s aging dictator. Within days, the old regime was gone, and after eighteen months of political turmoil, Portugal was on its way to freedom. Thus began what scholars came to call “the third wave” of global democratization—an extraordinary movement that galvanized the political development of region after region. In the decades that followed, dozens of countries with all kinds of authoritarian political systems—monarchies, oligarchies, military dictatorships, one-party regimes—shifted into the democratic camp. As most of the world was transformed, however, one area remained frozen in time: the Arab Middle East.

While other countries surged forward (and sometimes backward again), the Arab world stuck to its guns—quite literally, as regimes from North Africa to the Persian Gulf used all the tools at their disposal, including force, to suppress discontent and cling to power. They were so successful, in fact, that eventually their very obduracy became the story, and a generation of scholarship emerged to explain the phenomenon of “authoritarian persistence” in the region. Revolutionary idealism curdled into brutal cynicism; economic development stalled; hopeful republics turned into family kleptocracies. Year after year, decade after decade, a lot happened in the Middle East, but little changed.

Until now.

On December 17, 2010, a policewoman confiscated the unlicensed vegetable cart of a twenty-six-year-old street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, in the small Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid. Humiliated by his abuse and exasperated by his inability to get redress, Bouazizi went to a local government building, doused himself with gasoline, and lit himself on fire. Setting off a combustible mixture of economic despair, social frustration, and political yearning throughout the region, in the weeks and months afterward the flames consumed not only Bouazizi— who died on January 4, 2011—but the regimes of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, and quite likely others to come.

Why did this happen? Why now? What does

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