It’s just under two months since Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, and less than six weeks since he died from his injuries. The wave of protest he set off claimed its second dictator on Friday night. Demonstrations in Algeria and Yemen continue now. And today, large protests are planned in Iran against a truly vicious regime that has responded to previous protests with indiscriminate murder and r-pe.
As events in Tunisia since the flight of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali show, sending a tyrant packing is only the start of a slow, painful process of restoring the rule of law and basic liberties and purging the apparati of a state of corruption and the apparatchiks of the old regime. Nor will complaints about the lack of economic opportunities be addressed overnight. Kleptocracies take time to turn into workable democracies that can start delivering real economic growth to their citizens. In the interim, leaderless opposition movements are likely to splinter in pursuit of different goals and ideologies.
There will be considerable commentary — in fact there has already been some — about how difficult the transition will be. Long have Western experts sat in judgement on the Arab world, and there’s been no shortage this time around as, first in Tunisia and then in Egypt, Arab peoples unexpectedly demonstrated that non-violent protest can be effective against regimes regarded as solid and stable.
But these victories have been hard-won. Hundreds have died in Egypt at the hands of Mubarak’s thugs. Scores died in Tunisia. Tens of thousands of others have been arrested, beaten, threatened and tortured. Blood will continue to be shed as some of the world’s worst regimes struggle to keep their grip on power. And the Egyptian Army may turn out not to be a trustworthy shepherd for the transition to elections in that country.
But Arab people are unlikely to easily relinquish their victories, especially if they spread across the region as they have already spread from Tunisia to Egypt. They have paid too high a price for them, and they have discovered how powerful they can be.