It is astonishing to watch history unfolding in North Africa. For the first time in my memory, Americans are paying attention to the people of the region and not their autocratic rulers.
At this point, nobody knows how any of this will turn out. Tunisia still has a nebulous governmental structure; Egypt has a transitional military government; Libya is collapsing into tribal chaos, with Qaddafi now threatening to open arms depots to his followers. But revolutions are notoriously unpredictable. America is indeed fortunate to have had George Washington as our first President, because it was he who had to define the position. Not every country is so fortunate, though it often seems to me that Americans are always looking for a Washington figure in other countries’ revolutions.
I find it endlessly fascinating to compare this historic moment with the Eastern European overthrow of Communism back in 1989. Back then, we held our breath in astonishment at the rapidity with which events cascaded into the news: walls falling, people moving between countries freely (for the first time!), governments that had seemed as impermeable as stone just melting away. There was also a bit of self-satisfaction in it, a feeling that those folks wanted what we had. I don’t think anyone expected anything but parliamentary democracies to result from those changes. And that is largely what actually did result, with the notable exceptions of Byelorussia, the ‘Stans, and perhaps Russia itself.
But we hold no such expectations about North Africa’s revolutions. This is a good thing, too. We are looking at societies that have never known representative democracy; who have limited experience in autonomy; and who have never been allowed to enshrine in law the rights they believe to be inalienable. We know that tribes are important in Libya, but I’m sure nobody but specialists knew that before. And we don’t know how tribes govern themselves.
At this point, all I can say is, Thank God we have Obama in office now. I think he understands the uniqueness of North Africa’s current situation and will refrain from any effort to impose a set of expectations on the people there. This is as it should be. What the people in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya are doing is unprecedented — and is far more important than the crumbling of the Berlin Wall in that it shows you don’t need glasnost and perestroika to get rid of an oppressive government. This is bottom-up revolution, not top-down. I stand in bewildered admiration of my Arab brothers and sisters.