In Russia two weeks ago, President Dmitry Medvedev unveiled a 33-foot-tall marble statute of Boris Yeltsin, who, as Russia’s first president, helped bring democracy to the former communist state.
In Tunisia right now, I would like to see the interim government erect a marble statue, at least 33 feet tall, of Mohamed Bouazizi, the 26-year-old Tunisian vendor who immolated himself outside a government building last month, inspiring what some Arab journalists now call the “glorious uprising.”
Given how far the “glorious uprising” has spread ― from Algeria to Albania, Cairo to Kazakhstan ― Bouazizi set off the most important international development since the fall of the Soviet Union 20 years ago.
For the first time in memory, millions of oppressed people worldwide, living under the heavy boot of venal leaders, are standing up, fists raised high, as they proclaim: “We don’t have to take it anymore!”
For the first time in memory, vicious dictators all over the world are visibly afraid. They’re hastily offering promises of change, hoping their own people don’t throw them out of office. Though significant risks still lie ahead, freedom fever is spreading around the world ― not just the Middle East.
In China, just as soon as the demonstrations in Cairo began, government censors leapt into action, removing serious mention of events in Egypt from newspapers, TV, radio, websites, blogs and other online discussion groups ― terrified that the Chinese people might threaten them, too.
Hundreds of angry Russians demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, calling his government the “rule of thieves.” One opposition leader asked the crowd: “Tell me how our leadership differs from” Hosni Mubarak’s in Egypt.
Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s ruthless and corrupt leader, sized up the situation, then told his people he would call early elections and abandon his plan to push a referendum that would have allowed him to remain in office for another decade.
But the most striking concessions have come from Arab leaders ― longtime implacable dictators. King Abdullah of Jordan dissolved his government and appointed a new prime minister who said his job was to “pass reforms.”
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, has been postponing elections for years, but suddenly announced he would hold new elections “as soon as possible.”
Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s brutal dictator, gave an extraordinary interview to the Wall Street Journal in which he said: “If you don’t see the need for reform before what happened in Egypt and Tunisia, it’s too late to do any reform.” He, too, promised change.
Yemen’s president, facing a major uprising, promised not to run for re-election again after his present term ends. Algeria’s leader pledged to end a 19-year-old state of emergency and allow more political freedoms. Other governments are now witnessing or trying to prevent protests in Afghanistan, Libya, Sudan, Pakistan, Morocco, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the Gaza Strip.
Exhilarating as they are, these protests are only the first step. None of these dictators showing remorse today could have remained in power for all these years without cunning and the unflinching determination to hold onto the throne at all costs. Like Mubarak did, almost all of them are offering concessions that postpone real change for months or years.
I am sure each of them ― in Syria, Yemen, Kazakhstan, Algeria, Albania ― knows that most everyone in the world is watching right now. They don’t want to be the subject of the widespread contempt that was larded on Mubarak. None of them wants to see his own people, feeding on that, demanding that he run for the airport and flee.
But these canny leaders know full well that a few months from now, this moment will have passed; the world’s attention will have turned away. They can put in place a few cosmetic changes and go on as before.
Yemen’s president, for example, says he will stay in office until the next election ― in 2013. What’s to prevent him, a year or two from now, from changing his mind, saying the growing terrorist threat demands steady leadership?
Only the people who are taking to the streets right now can keep the pressure up. Down the road, don’t count on America and other fickle Western states for help. If their dictators falter or backtrack, the people are the ones who have to come back, fists raised high.
They hold the ultimate power. No one else.
By Joel Brinkley
Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times. ― Ed.
(Tribune Media Services)