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A 'democracy Renaissance?'

By Arsalan Iftikhar, Special to CNN
  • Protests mark a "democracy Renaissance" within the Arab world, Arsalan Iftikhar writes
  • Long-standing strongmen are dinosaurs to their young countrymen, Iftikhar writes
  • Iftikar: Nonviolent revolutions have worked elsewhere, and can in the Middle East, too
  • Egypt
  • Tunisia
  • Yemen
  • Civil Disobedience

Editor's note: Arsalan Iftikhar is an international human rights lawyer, founder of and legal fellow for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in Washington.

(CNN) -- President John F. Kennedy once said, "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable."

The recent pro-democracy mass protests around the Arab world -- in places like Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt --reflect the beginnings of a "democracy Renaissance," launched by the millions of citizens within these countries that have been ruled for decades by ruthless autocrats and soft dictators.

The recent "Jasmine Revolution" in Tunisia began with the desperate act of a young unemployed man who set himself on fire. And that passionate fire would ultimately rage against the Tunisian government machine until its long-serving president would be forced into exile two weeks ago. The young man was 26-year-old Mohammed Bouazizi, an unemployed fruit stand owner who became distraught when a policewoman confiscated his unlicensed produce stand. He died from his burns.

Following suit, several other unemployed youth around the country tried to commit suicide, and subsequent mass protests would soon topple the 23-year reign of Tunisia's strongman, 74-year-old Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Long-standing autocratic rule within the Arab world shows a "depressingly familiar pattern" in terms of regional suppression of democracy, notes Egyptian-American writer Mona Eltahawy, in a recent Washington Post opinion piece. Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, 68 years old, has been in power since 1969; Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh (64) has ruled since 1978 and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (82) since 1981.

Eltahawy wrote that these dinosaur political figures are "not so much fathers as grandfathers of their nations, these autocrats clinging to office -- and are increasingly out of touch with their young populaces."

Much larger than Tunisia, the nation of Egypt is home to some 80 million people -- with Mubarak as its not-so-democratic leader since the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981. From creating a virtual police state to promoting censorship by placing all media under state control, Hosni Mubarak has spent the better part of 30 years strengthening his autocratic rule, while millions of young Egyptians remain hungry and unemployed.

Over time, his regime has needlessly tried to silence bloggers, imprisoned prominent pro-democracy activists such as Saad Eddin Ibrahim, and during these most recent mass protests even placed 2005 Nobel Peace Prize co-winner (and political opposition leader) Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei under house arrest.

As young Arabs around the Middle East continue to use Twitter and Facebook to awaken versions of democracy Renaissance around the region, they would be wise to remember the concepts of nonviolent civil disobedience taught by such giants as Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, Mohandas K. Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King.

Just as Gandhi and King used nonviolent civil disobedience to end British colonial rule in India and end segregation in Jim Crow America, these peaceful political methods have also helped to successfully overturn authoritarian rule during the Rose Revolution in the Republic of Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine.

During the time known as "Prague Spring," after the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, millions of Czech citizens responded with passive nonviolent resistance -- frustrating soldiers by painting over street signs, cutting off their water supplies mysteriously and playfully decorating buildings with flowers, flags, and slogans like, "An elephant cannot swallow a hedgehog." Although it took 30 more years to topple communism in that nation, Czechoslovakia finally became a democratic nation during the non-violent Velvet Revolution of 1989.

And every global observer should proudly remember the brave "Tank Man of Tiananmen Square" who, the day after Chinese police cracked down on demonstrations in 1989, defiantly stood in front of a column of advancing Chinese tanks with only his plastic grocery bags by his side. Refusing to yield to a column of tanks, this still-unknown "Tank Man" brought it to a halt. He would represent the aspirations for freedom for all people worldwide for generations to come.

As we continue to see massive protests in places like Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and possibly elsewhere in the Arab world, let us all pray for safety and security for every citizen and hope that it does not take a brave act of nonviolent civil disobedience by some unknown Tank Man to awaken us to the Arab world's quest for true democracy.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Arsalan Iftikhar.

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