THE Tunisian wave appears unstoppable. Anti-government protests have become contagious, and though their severity varies from country to country, regimes well entrenched for decades appear to be desperate. Whether the rulers in Bahrain, Libya and Yemen, too, will go the Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak way cannot be predicted with certainty. But what is abundantly clear is that a new Middle East is fighting to be born. The old authoritarian systems may not be thrown out lock, stock and barrel, but the new awakening among the people must have made clear to the ruling oligarchies that the political order they have crafted has not delivered and is ripe for collapse. In Libya, its oil wealth has not stopped its people from expressing their anger against Muammar Qadhafi’s 42-year-old despotism; in Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been unable to contain protests that have already caused several deaths, while in Bahrain, the Shia majority is finally making its presence felt.
Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain may differ in terms of the internal make-up of their respective regimes and the level of their individual socio-economic development, but what is common to them is the perpetuation of systems that have denied even a modicum of freedom to their people. Bahrain may be a monarchy and the others republican in theory, but for all practical purposes the Mubaraks and Ben Alis of the Middle East have lorded it over their subjects in royal splendour. In Yemen and Bahrain, demonstrations have already achieved partial successes: President Saleh will not contest the next election, and Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has set up a committee to study proposed reforms. In Egypt, calm has not returned. People want missing persons to be traced and policemen accused of excessive use of force punished. In the other countries, change may not be orderly and could give way to chaos. While a radical redrawing of the political order may not be possible for the unpopular leaders still clinging to power, the least they can do is to announce an early date for holding fair general elections.