For someone who has covered the Arab world for 40 years, the middle-class Tunisian revolt was exhilarating. Especially gripping was the fact that the youthful women demonstrators were unveiled, and the young men did not wear beards. They talked about practical things such as reforming the economy and ending corruption.
For a moment, one could dream. It almost seemed possible that Tunisia might produce the element whose absence has doomed so many Arab efforts to achieve democracy: a pragmatic political movement with concrete goals that is neither Islamist nor based on tribe or sect.
Mideast efforts at political reform have been dashed because that Arab center was missing. The old pan-Arab nationalist and socialist parties have been discredited, and today's strongest Arab political movements are Islamist. Pragmatic center-left or center-right parties are either too weak to matter or nipped in the bud by autocrats who fear they present a political threat.
Take Egypt: The sclerotic regime of Hosni Mubarak insists the only alternative to its misrule is an Islamist takeover. But the government has created a self-fulfilling prophecy, leaving no political space for moderate movements to develop. Similarly, in Syria, shoots of moderate opposition are crushed before they can develop, leaving the field to underground Islamists who are waiting patiently for their moment.
In Lebanon, a country with a large middle class that should be a poster child for democracy, hopes soared in 2005. Hundreds of thousands of young people poured into the streets to protest a car bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which most Lebanese attributed to Syria. The so-called March 15 movement, led by Hariri's businessman son, Saad, seemed poised to create a new Lebanon, freed from Syrian interference.
But Lebanon's moderate middle ran up against sectarian politics. Hezbollah, a Shiite religious party backed by Iran and Syria and willing to use violence, was able to outflank the March 15 movement. Lebanon's sectarian politics make it impossible to operate a normal democratic system in which parties compete on platforms and issues.
Sectarianism also dominates political life in Baghdad. Everyone remembers the Iraqi election of 2005, when old ladies in black veils held up fingers stained with purple ink. Americans didn't realize that these women weren't celebrating democracy, but rather the triumph of their Shiite religious sect.
Iraq's political parties are sectarian — Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish — a system the United States helped devise. Cabinet ministers are appointed by sect, not competence.
So it's no wonder that the Tunisian revolt has galvanized the angry youths of the region. The Arab political landscape has been so frozen that many young Arabs have despaired about their futures. Their plight was perfectly exemplified by the young college graduate who triggered the Tunisian upheaval. He immolated himself after being abused by police as he sold vegetables, the only job he could find. Several other young men in the region have echoed his desperate act.
However, in Tunisia, which is not riven by ethnic or religious splits, the young rebels are students, businessmen, professionals, or members of a strong trade union movement. They represent Arab middle and working classes that want justice — economic reforms, an end to the hideous corruption of the ruling family — and a chance to pick new leaders.
The question swirling around the Tunisian rebellion is whether it can finally provide an example of an Arab country where moderate, democratic forces — not dictatorial, not radical Islamist — take power. The answer to that question matters desperately to the entire Arab world — and to us.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
© 2011 Philadelphia Inquirer