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The Arab Spring: What Does it Mean?

Ever since the “Green Revolution” that broke out in Tehran following the Iranian presidential elections (probably rigged) in June 2009, a series of popular uprisings have swept across North Africa and the Middle East. In 2011 alone, we have seen demonstrations and uprisings in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq (both Kurdish and Arab areas), Libya, Jordan, Syria, and Palestine’s “West Bank.” It has been hard to follow all of them, or to predict which ones will result in new and more democratic regimes, and which ones will be brutally suppressed. For many years, Iran and the Arab states have been rigid dictatorships with widening gaps between rich and poor, tight controls over all kinds of communication, secret police, prisons, torture, and phony elections.

This “Arab Spring” is changing all this, though in most countries no one knows for sure if it will succeed. There are many causes: satellite television, especially the rise of Al Jazeera (which has eclipsed state-run TV stations); Obama’s election and, more notably, his electrifying 2009 speech at Cairo University; increasing urbanization; growing numbers of young men and women with sixteen years of schooling behind them and no job prospects before them; rising food prices: and an emerging sense that governments should be accountable for their actions before their own citizens. We did not expect this to happen, and neither did the Iranians and the Arabs themselves. For some demonstrators, there is an Islamic motive; for most, though, it has been a desire for freedom and progress. It has been spread by blogs, web-based journals similar to Onward State, Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter, evading state control.

Here in the United States, we too will see rising activity among students, workers, teachers, professional men and women, speaking out against governments, local, state, and national, that have grown unresponsive to the needs of their citizens.

Some look to the Tea Party movement, but it is heavily influenced by our corporate culture and the evangelicals, and I expect it will falter as Americans come to realize that it cannot solve their problems. But we will see demonstrations, rallies, and walkouts by articulated and motivated men and women like many of you. Indeed, some of you already have started the process. Some day, you will rename the plaza around our great State Capitol “New Tahrir Square.”

Arthur Goldschmidt is Professor Emeritus of Middle East History at Penn State. He is also a founder of Voices of Central Pennsylvania and an adviser to Agora.

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