There were surprises in this year’s unfinished revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
Many in the West were surprised that the Arab world, which we have regularly been told is medieval, hierarchical and undemocratic, was full of young men and women using their cellphones, their Internet access and their bodies in streets and squares to foment change through direct democracy and popular power.
And there was the surprise that the seemingly unshakable regimes of the strongmen were shaken into pieces in ways that have frightened the mighty from Saudi Arabia to China to Algeria to Bahrain.
And finally, there was the surprise of timing. Why now?
In hindsight, we have constructed a narrative in which it all makes sense. A young Tunisian college graduate, Mohammed Bouazizi, who could find no better work than selling produce from a cart on the street, was so upset over his treatment by a policewoman that he set himself afire on Dec. 17. His death two weeks later became the match that set his country afire, and that blaze quickly spread.
But why was it that death that sparked the uprisings? When exactly do abuses that have long been tolerated become intolerable? When does the fear evaporate? Tunisia and Egypt were not short on intolerable situations and tragedies before Bouazizi’s self-immolation. The boiling point of water is straightforward, but the boiling point of societies is mysterious.
WikiLeaks and Facebook and Twitter helped, but new media had been around for years. Asmaa Mahfouz, a young Egyptian woman, tried to use the Internet to organize a protest on April 6, 2008. Turnout was small, and the demonstration was quickly broken up.
In January of this year, Mahfouz again called for Egyptians to rise up, urging them to gather in Tahrir Square on Jan. 25. This time she didn’t stand alone. Millions of Egyptians stood with her, and the government could not withstand the force of their collective will.
That the revolution was called by a young woman with nothing more than a Facebook account and passionate conviction shouldn’t surprise us. Revolution has often been sparked by such acts of bravery. On Oct. 5, 1789, a young girl took a drum to the central markets of Paris, where women were fretting over the high price and scarcity of bread. The drummer girl helped focus that rage, gathering a mostly female crowd of thousands who marched to Versailles, and seized the royal family. It was the end of the Bourbon monarchy.
In 1977, in Czechoslovakia, people signed Charter 77, a manifesto demanding greater freedom. And along the waterfront in Gdansk, Poland, in 1980, a group of dockworkers founded a labor union. In these simple acts of bravery was the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire.
Those who are not afraid are ungovernable, at least by fear. And when people lose their fear, amazing things sometimes happen. In Egypt, there were moments of violence when people pushed back against the government’s goons. Still, no armies marched, no superior weaponry decided the fate of the country, nobody was pushed from power by armed might. People gathered in public and discovered themselves as the public, as civil society. They found that the repression and exploitation they had long tolerated were intolerable, and they found that they could do something about it, even if that something was only gathering, standing together and insisting on their rights.
In Argentina in 2001, in the wake of a brutal economic collapse, such a sudden shift in consciousness toppled the neoliberal regime of Fernando de la Rúa and ushered in a revolutionary era of economic desperation but also of brilliant, generous innovation. In Iceland in early 2009, in the wake of a global economic meltdown that was especially fierce in that small island nation, a once-docile population almost literally drummed the ruling party out of power.
Hard economic times are in store for most people, and that may lead to times of increasing boldness. Or not. One summation of chaos theory notes that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil can shape the weather in Texas. There are billions of butterflies, all flapping their wings, but when their flight will stir the winds of insurrection, no one can know in advance.
It is incumbent on us all to expect the unexpected but not just to wait for it. Sometimes we have to become the unexpected, as the young heroes and heroines of 2011 have.
As Asmaa Mahfouz put it, “As long as you say there is no hope, then there will be no hope, but if you go down and take a stance, then there will be hope.”
Rebecca Solnit, the author of the books A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster and Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas. A longer version of this article appears at tomdispatch.com.