Arab youth— uneducated and unemployed, impoverished and desperate— had nothing to lose but their miserable lives when they strapped on their suicide bomb packs. Oppressed by tyrants who squandered the national treasure, they were consumed with a furious envy that was whipped up by images of wealth and well-being in the West. Being young, they were fair game for religious fanatics who brainwashed them with promises of an idyllic afterlife that contrasted starkly with their wretched existence. The young people expressed their rage and their helplessness by taking as many innocents as possible with them into the ultimate escape.
What we are seeing now in long-oppressed Arab lands is a channeling of that same desperation into the opposite direction. They have found a positive energy, a zeal for change bolstered by a refusal to be placated by the regimes’ old and insincere promises of reform. Inflamed by the success of their neighbors in Tunisia and Egypt, Yemenis and Bahrainis, Iranians, Algerians, Moroccans, Libyans, Jordanians, Sudanese— and potentially the abused subjects of any despot— now dedicate themselves for the first time in their lives to replacing their often brutal subjugation with the self-government, liberty and prosperity they know their counterparts in the West enjoy. Rather than destroy the West, they want to emulate it.
We have seen the demonstrations that began with a few dedicated and peaceful protesters chanting their demands for change. Their courage inspired more of their brothers and sisters to leave the safety of their homes and risk exposure in the public square. Attempts to quell the growing rebellion resulted in more people joining hands and facing bullets together. In Tunisia, in Egypt, Bahrain and now Libya, the world is witnessing unspeakable horror defied by extraordinary courage.
Most of us never experienced or even imagined the oppression of fear these people lived with every day: seeing their friends and neighbors “disappeared,” often for years; not knowing when the dreaded secret police would come for them, their children or their parents. Except for those of us who fought for civil rights in the 60s or tore down the Berlin Wall, we never had a chance to change history so radically. Watching their suffering live on Al Jazeera as they were mowed down by bullets, camels and trucks, we were awed by their courage. I know I wept as I watched them struggle, persevere and ultimately triumph.
The road ahead will undoubtedly be difficult, especially as they have no experience in self-rule, but they have shown their grit. I hope the world’s democracies realize it’s in their interests to foster democracy, not oligarchy, and to see these countries and the aspirations of their people for what they are, not merely as inconvenient gas stations.