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The Economist: The Awakening

February 17, 2011

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The Economist details why the world has reason to be inspired and hopeful by the wave of revolutions in the Middle East.

THE people of the Middle East have long despaired about the possibility of change. They have felt doomed: doomed to live under strongmen who have hoarded their wealth and beaten down dissent; doomed to have as an alternative only the Islamists who have imposed their harsh beliefs—and beaten down dissent. In some places, like Saudi Arabia and Iran, the autocrats and the Islamists have merged into one. But nowhere has a people had a wholly free choice in how they are ruled. And the West has surrendered to this despair too, assuming that only the strongmen could hold back the extremists.

Two months ago a Tunisian fruit-seller called Muhammad Bouazizi set fire to these preconceptions when, in despair over bullying officials and the lack of work, he drenched himself in petrol and struck a match. Tunisians and, later, Egyptians took to the streets. Almost miraculously, the people overwhelmed the strongmen who had oppressed them for decades. In the past few days tens of thousands have marched in Tehran, braving beatings and arrest. In tiny Bahrain men have died as the security forces sprayed protesters with rubber bullets and smothered them in tear gas. In Libya crowds have risen up against a fearsome dictator. Jordan is sullen, Algeria unstable and Yemen seething.

Radical Islamists have long been the Arab world's presumed revolutionaries, but these fights do not belong to them. In a region that had rotted under repression, a young generation has suddenly found its voice. Pushing ahead of their elders, they have become intoxicated with the possibility of change. As with Europe's triumphant overthrow of communism in 1989, or even its failed revolutions of 1848, upheaval on such a scale can transform societies. What does that mean for the Islamists, the strongmen and the world?

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