|Stop! I've got a baguette and I'm not afraid to use it!|
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!--
Oh! times, In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!
—William Wordsworth on the French RevolutionFive years ago today, on Friday, January 14, 2011, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunis for exile. The first of the revolts we came to call Arab Spring had succeeded. Ordinary people, like the iconic man with the baguette in the photo above, had toppled an authoritarian regime. Everything seemed possible: the "Jasmine Revolution" was already being echoed elsewhere. Wordsworth's words on the French Revolution seemed appropriate.
But the French Revolution led to the Terror, to Bonaparte, and to the return of the Bourbons, who had "learned nothing and forgotten nothing." The second Arab Awakening divided Libya, subjected Syria, Iraq, and Yemen to civil wars, and saw Egypt return to a military-backed regime. The only good news, and it is imperfect, is where it all began: Tunisia has seen free elections and peaceful transfer of power, despite persisting radical violence.
The lessons of the last five years will be studied for generations. For good or ill the old Middle East is gone, and a new one still emerging. The hopes of peaceful change were disappointed, except in Tunisia. The vibrant excitement of 2011 has been disappointed, and in some ways it seems much longer than five years.