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"Genuine revolution" in the Middle East has reached several points of no return

Professor Ilan Pappe [Department of History, University of Exeter]: "The Middle East is producing good and hopeful news for the first time in many years. For quite a while, the only potential progress in the region has been a series of attempts to resolve the long-standing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians; but these junctures have failed to produce anything positive on the ground.

This past month has seen many more genuine moments of change and hope. A main reason for renewed optimism is that ordinary people are attempting to create better and more just lives for themselves. These people do not articulate the noble ideas of 'justice' and 'freedom' in the typically cynical way as do politicians across the world; rather, they explain to us on a daily basis the meaning of these concepts. They die for 'freedom' and 'justice' in peaceful demonstrations dispersed by brutal force in Libya, Algeria, Bahrain, Iran and Palestine. They show up in millions at the Liberation Square of Cairo to demonstrate their craving for a fundamentally decent life, ensuring that we understand their commitment just like the man who ignited the new wave of genuine revolutions - a street vendor from Tunis who burned himself to death as as a victim of the oppressive regime now gone in his country.

While it is still too early to summarise what in essence is only the beginning of a process, we can already observe a defining moment in the region's history. And we are still likely to witness ups and downs before the full picture emerges. But there are several noteworthy points of 'no return' that affect not only life in the Middle East, but also the future relationship between the Middle East and the West. Let us consider four of them:

Firstly, the revolutions have exposed just how little of the Arab world the West and its top academics and media experts really know. None of them predicted such changes. Even when the revolutions began, they maintained that the Egyptian regime would survive. This is more than just a failure to predict; it represents a total misunderstanding of the Arab youth, who constitute the majority of Arab populations. Young Arabs have finally defeated Orientalist depictions of them as indifferent, obedient and primitive. Much like their Western counterparts, the Arab youth now form an important actor in politics, society and culture.

Next, there is an unprecedented impact on Israel's own and external image in the Middle East and beyond. The sight of democracy in action in the Arab world has driven home the message that Israel is not the "only democracy in the Middle East." In fact, the recent revolutionary month casts doubt on her being a democracy at all. The democratic forces, especially in Egypt, but also in Jordan and in the 'pro-Western' regimes in the area, regard a bolder stance against Israel's oppression in the Palestinian areas. Surely Israel will have to change its policy of demonizing the Arab world.

The third point of no return is of particular relevance to the Americans and the British. The events so far have further proven wrong the idea of the Iraq occupation as a means of democratic reform. As we now know: instead of democracy, the occupation of Iraq destroyed that rich country and pushed it into perpetual anarchy. It has become apparent to us that Saddam Hussein would have been overthrown in any event. This lesson is bound to reformulate the West's relationship with the Middle East.

Finally, the events so far have highlighted the multiple layers of what we in the West call 'Islam.' The revolutions have been carried out by young Muslim men and women (together with members of the various Christian minorities), who represented the many faces of a 21st century Muslim person. One hopes that the media will abandon its tendency to regard 'Islam' or 'Muslim' in a one-dimensional and reductive way, and instead reflect upon the pluralistic nature of these people and their world. Such a conception would include the free, educated, loving and democracy-seeking youth we have seen on our TV screens in the last month.

In the past, the only plausible revolutionary scenario for the Middle East was that the current regimes would be replaced by an Iran-like regime. But in the wake of current events, even the regime in Iran is in danger of being toppled. It seems that the alternative to the present regimes would be a new political system: not one borrowed from the West, but one which would cater to the needs and aspirations of civil society in the most equitable and just way."

This article was prepared for publication by Yuriy Vilner, an associate editor for JURIST's professional commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to him at professionalcommentary@jurist.org

Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.

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