Let's agree from the outset that the events taking place across the Arab world are unprecedented. From Tunisia to Lebanon, from Palestine to Yemen, and explosively in Egypt, the Arab people are angry; and they show it, sometimes violently.
They are angry because they feel betrayed. They have shown remarkable patience with rulers who claimed to govern in the name of the people; yet they promoted special interests, fostered corruption and denied fundamental freedoms. Watching these dramatic expressions of anger and frustration with Arab governance, the first question that came to mind is a simple and straightforward one: What took so long?
The winds of dramatic change that swept across Europe and tossed aside the dictatorship of communism took place some 25 years ago. It caused the collapse of the communist empire in Europe and brought to power civil society leaders committed to democratic governance from Poland to Czechoslovakia, from Hungary to East Germany, and even to Russia itself.
In the former countries of the Soviet Union democracy was novel, demanding, and sometimes messy; former communist leaders reinvented themselves as new-born democrats but found it difficult to totally give up on old habits. Democracy even came to former dictatorships in Latin America. It seemed that the Arab world was one of the last places that remained immune to the sweeping winds of change.
This is explainable. The nature of most Arab regimes is more repressive and authoritarian than totalitarian dictatorship. This allowed Arab regimes to introduce gradual change and advertise it as democratic reform while denying the citizen genuine participation in the political process.
Take the example of Egypt. When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat came to power after Jamal Abdul Nasser's death in 1970 he claimed to continue Nasser's legacy while in fact he set out to dismantle its two principled pillars: Socialism at home and nationalism abroad.
His infitah (openness) mirrored the capitalist principles of the American open door policy; domestically he reshuffled the structures of the Egyptian social classes, downgrading the intelligentsia and the military and creating a privileged business class.
In foreign policy, he aligned himself behind American strategic interests in the region. In return, Washington turned a blind eye to the repressive nature of his regime, and rewarded his willingness to make peace with Israel with a huge annual aid programme.
The alienation of the Egyptian intelligentsia grew as it adamantly opposed any normalisation with Israel. Social inequities intensified as the ranks of the poor swelled with the rising cost of living and the massive layoffs caused by systematic privatisation. This anger led to the famous popular uprising of 1977 known as the bread riots.
Sadat took no notice, as his periodic purges sought to silence all opposition. His policies radicalised the poor and swelled the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood. A member of that organisation killed him during a military parade in 1981.
Mubarak succeeded Sadat and promised to continue his policy; and he did. He intensified World Bank and International Monetary Fund-mandated privatisation and restructuring. But whatever wealth this created it was grossly unevenly distributed; and this magnified social inequities in the absence of genuine and effective social protection programs. The rich became richer and the poor became poorer.
He astutely allowed for more criticisms of the regime than his predecessor was prepared to tolerate. This gave critics an outlet to vent their frustrations, but was not enough to contain the people's anger, especially in the face of rising cost of living, social inequities, corruption and electoral fraud.
The Egyptian people, who came out by the millions in 1967, to ask Nasser to stay, came out by the tens of thousands to ask Sadat and Mubarak to leave. Had there been real democratic pluralism in Egypt, it is likely that democratic elections would have produced the same result.
The massive demonstrations in Egypt in the last few days attest to the regime's failure to help the ordinary people — notwithstanding his protestations to the contrary in his televised response to the demonstrations.
Promise of reform
The Arab people have been willing to believe in the promise of democratic reforms and social change; and this tempered their enthusiasm for an Arab version of the European democratic revolutions. But 25 years later and the promised political and social reforms have yet to be genuinely implemented; the frustration of the citizen is turning to anger as he remains excluded from the political process.
For me the most remarkable aspect of the Tunisian revolution is precisely how it proved the illegitimacy of governance structures that treat the Arab citizen with disdain. In fleeing so quickly, former Tunisian president Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali proved that he himself did not believe in the legitimacy of his regime. He knew that the fragility of a regime founded on a repressive apparatus afforded him little time before it collapsed.
The paternalistic model of Arab governance, its repressive nature and its growing alienation from the citizen is simply too anachronistic in this day and age. Its denial of fundamental freedoms and social justice is an outrage to humanity and the dignity of the modern Arab citizen. This is the message of Arab anger. And if it is not understood, people will take to the streets to underscore its centrality to their lives.
Adel Safty is Distinguished Professor Adjunct at the Siberian Academy of Public Administration, Russia. His new book, Might Over Right, is endorsed by Noam Chomsky, and published in England by Garnet, 2009.