FOR DECADES, the Arab world has lived under a variety of governments whose only point in common was the degree of autocracy they imposed on their citizens. Some blamed Arab culture, others said that Islam was incompatible with popular rule, but most agreed that the Arabs were bucking a global trend of democratization.
Yet the despair that drove the Tunisian vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi to set himself on fire in protest against an unjust and venal government is an angst shared across the region—and his terrible example inspired others to rise up and demand their political rights from regimes long seen as corrupt, as enriching themselves at the expense of their people.
Indeed, the Arab world is now re-embarking on a journey of reform as old as the European Enlightenment. For contrary to so much commentary—and common wisdom—the search for democratic government is not new in the Middle East. What most people in the West don’t realize is that the events of 2011 have deep historical roots stretching back to the early nineteenth century. Arab reformers have debated the merits of constitutional government since the 1830s and have sought to constrain absolutism with elected assemblies since the 1860s. Even in the nineteenth century, it was Egypt and Tunisia that led the reform agenda in the Arab world. Following the examples of Cairo and Tunis, liberal political-reform movements emerged in the broader Middle East, with constitutional revolutions in Iran in 1906 and in the Ottoman Empire in 1908. In the end, the past six decades of autocracy might well be remembered as but a setback in two centuries of popular pressure for constitutional rule and democratic rights.