POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Feb 12, 2011
The tears of an Egyptian man went viral this week, ushering in a new era in the global community. Wael Ghonim, a Google executive who had been held and blindfolded by Egyptian security for 12 days, cried out for his nation's freedom.
My family and I recently returned from a brief visit to Egypt in December. Every few miles, we encountered roadblocks manned by "security" that questioned our drivers and checked documents. The atmosphere was hot and tense, like something was ready to blow. The action was prompted in Tunisia where the suicide of an unemployed man, who was not allowed even to sell fruit, sparked riots which ousted a strongman of 30 years. Once Tunisia tipped, riots broke out in Egypt.
Within days protests began in Yemen, Jordan, Algeria, Bahrain and Libya. Syria is on edge. The oil-rich states in the Persian Gulf have remained relatively quiet for now. In response to the unrest, Jordan's King Abdullah II sacked his prime minister and assured demonstrators that his replacement would fight corruption and take steps to liberalize the political system. In an effort to quell marchers in Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh recently promised not to run for re-election in 2013.
Throughout this region, certainly, there are those who seek to replace their secular strongmen and create a more fundamentalist Islamic society. Yet, deep-seated aspirations for self-determination, political reform, women's suffrage, freedom from corruption and rule of law can be heard in each of these nations. People are marching for the ability to earn a livelihood that will not be diluted by inflation, and to purchase goods for the welfare and security of their families. They seek basic health care. The common denominator is a quest for human dignity.
These goals and values are shared by the global community. The information age, with the Internet and its social networks, has imparted a desire to participate in our global society and to enjoy freedom of movement and freedom to communicate. Countries might turn off the Internet from time to time, but they cannot erect an iron curtain barring the flow of information.
The United States has too often aligned itself with totalitarian figures who might be made into reliable, sovereign allies but who are also oppressive to their own people. In so doing, we have periodically placed national interests ahead of the moral imperative. Sadly, this has backfired time and again. The movement at hand in North Africa and the Middle East is one that will not be readily shaped by the global community. The resources and the relationships are not there, and in the end these are truly internal, domestic matters.
There are several possible outcomes to the current regional uprising:
1. The strongmen clamp down. Military and security forces remain loyal and maintain discipline. Case in point: Tiananmen Square. The problem is that people cannot be repressed indefinitely. Syria will try.
2. The powers that be offer enough political and economic reform to facilitate a forward evolution rather than a revolution. Jordan and Bahrain might be more willing and able to take this path.
3. The country is consumed by revolution and descends into a fractured, failed state. Consider Somalia.
4. There is a fundamentalist Islamic revolution as happened in Iran when the Shah was deposed. The Muslim Brotherhood takes over in Egypt, Hamas takes over the West Bank and Hezbollah takes broad control of Lebanon.
5. National strife spills across the border, and the region descends, once more, into war with Israel at the center.
6. Serendipity. The autocrats are removed, and a nation is able to remake itself into a free society.
In countries that are already more secular and modernized, such as Jordan, a gradual transition might be the most viable. Egypt is different. It has a huge, impoverished population that could no longer stand to have Hosni Mubarak as its leader. His reign has ended.
Democracy as we know it cannot be installed overnight. It must be cultivated over time, and institutions must be built to support it. Egypt continues to hang in the balance and could well model what comes next for its neighbors. We are witnessing the dawning of a new era.
Ira Zunin, M.D., M.P.H., M.B.A., is medical director of Manakai o Malama Integrative Healthcare Group and Rehabilitation Center and CEO of Global Advisory Services Inc. Please submit your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.