“A single spark,” Mao Zedong wrote in 1930, “can start a prairie fire.” He was referring to the potential of a peasant uprising somewhere in China to ignite a nationwide revolutionary conflagration.
A spark has been ignited in the Arab world, home to some 360 million people suffering under some of the worst dictatorships that exist today. A 26 year old college student and street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set a match to himself in front of a government building in a town in Tunisia, protesting the government’s policy on licensing street sales. His death immediately made him a hero and martyr and brought down a hated regime.
When I think of self-immolation as political protest, I think of Buddhist monks in Vietnam who could draw upon such scriptures as the Lotus Sutra to validate this form of protest. (In that text a boddhisattva anoints his body with fragrant oil and sets fire to his body, illuminating countless worlds, and the Buddha praises him.) But Tunisia is a Muslim country. Who could have expected this act of protest, and what it’s led to?
Information. Young people are on their laptops, cellphones, I-pods, texting and tweeting as we speak, following the Tunisian events.
Inspiration. From Algeria to Egypt to Yemen, people are saying “We can do that too!” As the Tunisian police force throws its lot in with the protesters, the troops who monitor Cairo’s streets, looking so fierce if hungry, know they can do that too. What is Mubarak to them? The government of Yemen, hated by so many and now so exposed (due to Wikileaks) as complicit in U.S. drone attacks on the country, is in big trouble.
This may be the Arab world’s 1848. Or its 1968. In those years upheavals convulsed the west. Part of it was due to common socio-economic conditions, part of it was due to the power of suggestion: If they can topple their rulers, so can we. It is the real power of hope, not Obama’s bogus version. It is real belief in change that strengthens as people see their streets filled with neighbors defying the security forces and able to get away with it.
There is no guarantee that whatever new governments emerge will be better than those toppled in the next few weeks. “The real fruit” of these battles, as a great man once wrote, “lies not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers.”
Pan-Arabism is a fine thing. (It’s also a central tenet of Baathist ideology, that of Saddam Hussein’s party in Iraq, once supported by the U.S. as an alternative to Islamist or communist parties). The idea that Arabic-speaking peoples are a nation, from the Atlantic coast of West Africa to Iraq, remains strong and insures that events in one Arab nation resonate in others. Nothing excites oppressed people more than the example of a revolution in a kindred country. This is why crowned heads and miscellaneous CIA-installed thugs throughout the Middle East are now quaking in their boots, cracking down or then offering concessions.
There is great disorder under heaven, as the Chinese communists – when they were communists – used to say. The situation is excellent.