Across the Middle East, millions are rebelling against their poverty and lack of freedom, blaming their corrupt leaders, who have ransacked their countries’ treasuries and natural wealth. The objects of vituperation, then, are particular individual autocrats. Few in fits of introspection blame endemic cultural practices such as tribalism, gender apartheid, and religious intolerance as equally responsible for the general misery. A Mubarak, Qaddafi, Ben Ali, King Abdullah, or Assad is thus not a natural expression of a society’s collective values and customs, but supposedly an aberration, and one forced upon Middle Easterners by an array of often sinister foreign interests.
So sometimes the object of protests is a pro-American autocrat, sometimes an anti-American totalitarian. The proverbial “people” are rebelling against juntas, monarchs, collectivized tyrannies, theocrats, and run-of-the-mill dictatorships. No one knows whether new promised plebiscites will lead to constitutional governments or, as in the Iran of 1979–82, a new round of dictatorship. No one knows, either, whether an unbridled Arab Street might in fact prove more illiberal than the old illiberal rulers. All hope that the Westernized voices on the BBC and CNN are in fact speaking for the fist-shaking mobs in the street.