“Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.” – T.E. Lawrence
What would it have been like to walk the streets of ancient Athens, and see Solon’s new laws resting in the Prytaneum? Or stand with the English barons as they forced King John to sign the Magna Carta? What must have been the atmosphere of the Second Continental Congress, as it took the helm of a revolutionary war and struggled to hammer out the structure of a government the people could believe in?
I missed all those moments in history. But today I am watching as democracy is birthed again. What Tunisia and Egypt have won, Libya, with the help of the free world, is now poised to achieve. Yesterday my heart leaped as Syria saw its first large protests. Heavy crackdowns by authorities there and in Yemen may slow the peaceful protests momentarily, but we are riding the crest of a wave now, that gathers momentum with the fall of every dictator. In a heartbreakingly symbolic gesture, Bahrain’s government yesterday demolished the gigantic pearl monument that has served as a focal point for pro-democracy protests there. But they cannot destroy the matchless pearl of liberty that hands across the Middle East are stretching forth to claim.
There are those who dismiss this new movement for freedom, telling us that it will end in nothing but military rule, new dictators, or radical Islamic takeovers. There are those who cynically fear that these new democracies will be less amenable to Western influence than the “stable” dictators they replace. The day before Ben Ali fell, I read multiple articles prognosticating that his fall was an impossibility. After Tunisia won her freedom, the “experts” agreed that Egypt was different, and that large protests would never form there, let alone topple the government. No one outside Libya foresaw the defeat of mad Qaddafi by a pro-democracy movement. The pessimists have been wrong about so many facets of this revolution. Can we give optimism, idealism, and hope a chance?
The timeline may be different for each country. But as the dust of the very first Arab revolution of 2011 settles, we can begin to draw our first conclusions. I have watched Tunisia every single day since the fall of the old regime, and I see signs of hope everywhere. The protesters who persevered until their dictator was gone stayed in the streets for months after his abdication, leading their new government through the changes it needed to make to fulfill their expectations. AFTER the departure of the president, they slowly secured the dissolution of the ruling party, the resignation of two unacceptable prime ministers, the peaceful purging of old-school loyalists from the new government, the dismantling of the state security apparatus, and finally, a date for free elections. Egypt is now following a similar path.
Not one of these movements has been led by a single charismatic individual, or even a party with a set ideology. The movers and shakers of this new world are spontaneous groups of young people, brought together by common values and a common desire for freedom and self-determination. They are peacefully protesting, valiantly defying, and bravely dying for a future they can see in the mind’s eye, shining like a star, and lighting their way through the long darkness of oppression, fear, and isolation.
It is easy for us on the other side of the Atlantic and the other side of democracy to watch in fear as the Arab world rises to shake off the chains of oppression. The unknown future stretches large before us, and our hope may be mingled with uncertainty. Perhaps it is even easy to look back longingly for the time when at least we knew what to hate and what to fear. Things were simpler then.
But it is not the Mubaraks or the Osamas or the Ayatollahs who are crying out to us now from the Arab world. It is the young people, and from every country they shout in unison over the strident threats of outdated despots. Listen to what they are saying! It has nothing to do with hate or terrorism or religious extremism. They want only liberty, democracy, and the opportunity to become full members of the free world. And they are steadfast in backing up their desires with consistent and prolonged peaceful action, even in the face of heavy-handed oppression and violence. The Arab youth of today are dreamers. But they dream by day. And I think that Heaven smiles on their dreams, just like on the dreams of those rag-tag revolutionaries in America two hundred years ago. Can we smile too? Can we embrace their just desires and champion their cause? Their road will not be easy, but they have shown that they are prepared to see it through. They have witnessed enough blighted revolutions and sham democracies in their countries to know that the day the president leaves is only the beginning. Their dreams extend far beyond toppling their governments, into a future of true democracy, free society, and civic responsibility. Rather than our nay-saying and doom and gloom, they deserve our support, our friendship, and our belief. And we could use an opportunity to relive and celebrate our own long-ago revolution, and deepen our appreciation for those precious liberties that should belong to everyone. Yes, the Arab youth are dreamers. Let’s take a deep breath of our own free air today, and dream a little with them.