The extraordinary implosion of the entire Arab order has been building for a long time. Something like it was bound to happen one day. A young man killed himself in a small Tunisian city on account of the injustice done to him, and this one local incident was enough to set the whole region alight. Millions of Arabs immediately recognized that they too are victims of injustice and powerless to do anything about it. The speed and uniformity with which their rage has spread proves how deeply they resent and loathe the governance imposed upon them. Some Arab rulers are monarchs, others presidents, but the distinction hardly matters, because all have absolute power. Some of them, or others taking their place, may survive in future, but this unprecedented rebellion against one-man rule is bound to leave its mark on history.
Current Arab rulers have been in power for many years, and even decades in the cases of Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen or Moammar Qaddafi in Libya. What might look like stability is actually stultification. The one-man ruler needs security forces to keep him in power, and for the purpose he has to rely on his own kind: on family and tribe, on sect and ethnicity. Injustice, cruelty, and corruption are inherent, as insiders require favors and outsiders have to be kept down. Opposition and free speech are dangers to be tightly supervised and controlled. These past weeks have been a textbook exposition of what happens when dissent rises above the level where it can be either bought off or contained. The ruler has to choose between suppressing it by force or forfeiting his position. The Tunisian ruler is alone so far in resolving the dilemma by fleeing abroad. Hosni Mubarak in Egypt lost power because the army abandoned him, and the force at his disposal therefore became insufficient. In at least four Arab countries — Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Syria — the ruler’s security forces have shot and killed protesters and will continue to do so until the issue of power is settled one way or another. Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and Algeria are on the brink of similar violence.