Revolution of the Arab mind: ordinary people have lost their fear

Protesters in Egypt's Tahrir Square. Photo: Reuters

First published on 12th February 2011.

Something momentous has happened in the Middle East. Some of it was visible, on Cairo's Tahrir Square. But much of it was not. Because it has happened inside the minds of people across the Arab world. And it's something that will change the world.

On the surface, it parallels what happened in Berlin in November 1989. That autumn, I had followed the tremors in communist Eastern Europe but, like many people, I couldn't see them rocking East Germany - the pride of the Soviet empire. No-one could.

Every analyst from Moscow to the Kremlin watchers of the CIA in Langley, Virginia thought the Model State was safe. But it was rocked and it fell, and I was there for the collapse and the delirious two weeks that followed. What has happened in Cairo is, clearly, not exactly the same but the effects may be similar and just as devastating.

Earlier this week in Cairo I heard a senior journalist admit she had been deeply wrong about her country. She echoes so many people, so many professional analysts I talked to who put up their hands and said, "I got it wrong."

She just hadn't believed that the tremor that shook Tunisia's President from office would topple Egypt's regime. She said it was just too strong; Egypt too big in the Middle East to implode, but most of all, her people were simply too cowed, too scared to take on the police and the State.

But they did. And the regime fell. And it fell because the demonstrators kept coming to Tahrir Square. Inside their minds, something had snapped. Yes, the authorities mis-played the few cards they really had, the army was split and refused to fire on the people and foreign governments were on the phone to Mubarak and the army, urging change. But the change had already happened.This was a revolution of the mind.

Many of these elements were present in 1989. The crowds kept coming in Leipzig. Day after day they got bigger.They were church-based groups to begin with and they held in their hearts the moral certainty that their cause was right, no matter how many times they were charged by riot police. The protests spread because one by one Germans were inspired by the example of their neighbours' defiance of authority. Their fear of the regime was broken. Hungary had shown a few weeks earlier that it was prepared to kick holes in the Iron Curtain, just as Tunisia kicked out its autocratic regime. But it was in Berlin - and Cairo - that the real revolution happened.

Bill Neely reports from the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Credit: ITN

After Berlin's wall fell, all bets on the triumph of the worldwide communist system were off and the regimes came tumbling down one after another. The keystone was gone, the rest followed, some violently, like Romania, where the leader was murdered, some amicably, like Czechoslovakia, where a velvet revolution gently tore the country in two. And so it will be in the Middle East.

It is a revolution beyond borders; a revolution of the Arab mind.Ordinary people have lost their fear.

This is a seismic moment - almost impossible to underestimate.

It is a revolution beyond borders; a revolution of the Arab mind. First of all, ordinary people across the whole region, from Algeria to Yemen, have lost their fear. Their fear of brutal and corrupt policemen in uniform, of the secret police, of the Interior Ministry, of the knock at the door and the hand on the shoulder.

Secondly, the Arab masses have always craved the respect of their leaders and of the West. They have never had it. Their leaders treated them like dirt. And the West trampled all over the Middle East, backing who it liked and treating the Arab street with fear and loathing.

Now the people of Tunisia and Egypt can command respect. Especially the young people. It is their revolution. They did it cleverly, on Facebook and Twitter, bypassing the government propaganda sheets that pass for newspapers, sidestepping the secret police who hadn't yet learned the language of social networks.

They have done what their parents were too afraid to do. They have done it out of fury and frustration.They have had few opportunities, few jobs.Yet they are educated and have watched the rest of the world enjoy the products and the lifestyle they too would have liked.They watched India and Brazil transformed from poverty into economic world leaders. They wondered why they didn't have the same. Now they have taken something for themselves. In their minds, everything has changed. They have respect - self respect and the respect of the Arab World. They have power and they will use it.

The revolution won't stop at the Egyptian border because it is a revolution without borders.The wall has fallen inside the heads of tens of millions of Arabs. Egypt's regime has fallen.But it won't be the last.

The question is which of the Middle East's leaders will merely topple and which will go amid awful bloodshed. Predictions are pointless.They've been wrong up to now. But the leaders of Yemen, Algeria, Libya and Syria are in trouble. They rule their countries exactly as Mubarak ruled his, with a hated secret police, detention without trial, protests crushed, and all the rest.

There's discontent in many of their militaries. And a teeming mass of people under twenty five without work or hope. Their revolutions may come soon.

The Soviet Union of the Middle East is Saudi Arabia, not in the sense that it controls the region, just that it is the biggest domino of all. If its regime is toppled, the effect on the price of oil, on the future of Al Qaeda and radical Islamism and on the West's economy and security will be profound.

Israel is watching all of this with barely concealed terror. It has now lost two friends in two years; almost its only powerful allies in the region. It drove away Turkey with heavyhanded and foolish ventures like its attack on the flotilla bringing aid to Gaza. Now it has lost the leader of the country whose deal guaranteed it peace, insofar as anything can give Israel peace in the region.

The Fall of the Berlin Wall changed everything in Eastern Europe and across the world. We are still sifting through the debris today. The fall of Mubarak may have consequences just as profound.