Have you read Les Miserables? I’ve only read it once, long ago. Although I found the entire book deeply affecting, there is one part I still remember particularly with the same passionate vividness as when I first read it as a romantic sixteen-year-old. It is in Volume 5, Book 1, Chapter 23, in which the disarmed but resplendent revolutionary leader Enjolras is executed during a failed revolt. The storm of tears with which I greeted the unflinching death of my hero prevented me for some time from continuing my reading. Neither before nor since can I remember any character whom I have idolized more. I suppose this early influence may explain my fascination with revolutions, and my absolute enthrallment with being in Tunisia at this particular time in history.
When I was in college studying the history, culture, political climate, and languages of the Middle East, it was a region of firmly ensconced dictators. People like Mubarak had been here for much longer than I could remember, and nobody imagined that they and their successors wouldn’t continue to rule with iron fists forever. When I arrived in Syria at the beginning of 2001, Bashar al-Assad had recently taken over his father’s spot in a seamless dictatorial transition, and pictures of them both were plastered all over everything. That’s the way things were here in the Middle East, and people just lived with it. In fact, some people took advantage of it. Back in December, before the Tunisian revolution had really gained any momentum, I was having a conversation with a member of the American armed forces, who will remain unnamed. He remarked casually that “some dictators are politically advantageous for us.” Although I suppose the comment should not have surprised me, the cynicism of a blunt admission that the supposedly democratic American government actually prefers for people to remain under dictators if it is “politically advantageous” left me momentarily speechless. I am not an advocate of a U.S. foreign policy that favors U.S. economic and political interests over basic human rights, no matter whether the expression of that policy involves invasions or inaction. I guess it’s no secret that I consider myself a citizen of the world first, and the United States second.
The Bush legacy has given a deservedly ugly name to American interventions in the Middle East. Which is one of the reasons the “Arab Spring” is so refreshing. Nobody, and I mean nobody, stepped in and did anything for the Tunisians. Without help from the U.S., Europe, or anyone else, they woke up and rang in a new era of freedom and democracy. Their courage and success inspired a generation of young people throughout the Arab world and beyond to stand up tall against oppression and corruption. The people of Libya have taken up the banner and the cry of freedom. But their dictator is a madman who has been in power for nearly twice as long as Ben Ali, the former strongman of Tunisia. Today, this moment, embattled Libyan freedom fighters are preparing to make a last stand in their revolutionary capital, Benghazi. Like Enjolras, they are prepared to die at the barricades for their country and their freedom.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Just a little international support and intervention could sweep Qaddafi out of the country forever, and bring in the bright future for which the Libyans have been fighting and dying. But while Qaddafi shells and burns, the international community endlessly debates an intervention that now seems it may come too late. The United States is, of course, gun-shy after having perpetrated two unwelcome invasions on the area. But this intervention would be welcome. The Arab League has asked for it. The Libyans have begged for it. France, an outspoken critic of the Iraq war, took the bold step last week of recognizing the provisional revolutionary government in Libya. Dozens of Libyan ambassadors and officials have already thrown their lot in with the rebels. Decisive action from the United States in Libya, far from being unpopular, would mean redemption, and a re-assumption of our moral responsibility to be a protector of human rights and a champion for freedom and democracy worldwide. Please, let’s take this opportunity and support the Libyan revolution before the chance is irretrievably lost.