Twenty years ago I was enjoying an innocent cocktail party in Jeddah as a guest of the Okaz newspaper group when I was suddenly and brutally mugged.
Metaphorically mugged, of course: it was a non-alcoholic cocktail party. One of my genial hosts mounted a platform and announced that "Mr. O'Sullivan will now address us on the topic of 'What is the Arabs' Share of Perestroika?'"
It was very fitting that this announcement should have been made at a media party because it was news to me.
My host gestured smilingly toward a lectern. As I approached it, I whispered:
"How long should I talk for?"
"Not long," he replied. "About 40 or 50 minutes."
Somewhere or other there is a video of that 40 or 50 minutes that will one day surface to embarrass me. Suffice it to say that I got through the speech and questions without pretending to faint -- a dodge sometimes used on such occasions by the terminally desperate. I even dealt more or less seriously with the topic. But I never really answered the question.
Partly that was because I didn't know what the Arab share of perestroika was -- or even what the phrase meant. Another reason, however, was that my hosts had a very vague and distorted idea of what they meant as well.
They were inspired by the recent velvet revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe and by Gorbachev's perestroika then morphing into the collapse of Soviet communism. But they did not make the seemingly logical leap that Arab regimes should usher in greater freedom and democracy for their subjects.
[The Arab awakening] does not establish that liberal democracy can thrive in the Middle East, but it settles the question of whether Arab societies want it. They do. They are even prepared to die for it
Nothing like that was raised. Instead, most of them argued that because the Soviet Union was no longer a superpower, Israel was no longer needed by the United States as a strategic ally in the Middle East.
America could therefore afford to weaken its ties to Israel and adopt a friendlier approach to the national aspirations of the Palestinians. That, apparently, was the Arabs' share of perestroika that evening and it produced a heated but off-the-point discussion.
So I never answered the question properly. This year, however, history answered it for me: the Arabs' share of perestroika, it turns out, is that Arabs should enjoy the same degree of freedom and democracy that Czechs, Russians, Kazakhs, and other Soviet subject peoples had seemingly won in 1989 and 1991.
Making Terrible Sacrifices For Liberty
Egyptians, Tunisians, Syrians, and Libyans have now proved that they too value liberty and that they are prepared to make terrible sacrifices for themselves and their fellow-countrymen.
That does not establish that liberal democracy can thrive in the Middle East, but it settles the question of whether Arab societies want it. They do. They are even prepared to die for it.
Ordinary people across the Arab world have now shown that they yearn for change.
In the intervening 20 years, however, the international community had taken the same curious position as my audience at the Okaz party. Those who wanted to demonstrate friendship for Arab aspirations focused all but entirely on the Israel-Palestine dispute.
The idea that Arab peoples more widely might want to enjoy the everyday liberties that Westerners take for granted was largely discounted. And when that idea was embraced by the George W. Bush administration, it came to be seen as a toxic neoconservative delusion that was anyway discredited by the course of the Iraq war.
Yet, as we now know, the aspirations of 1989 and 1991 (if not always precisely the same political ideas) were quietly germinating in the minds of young people in Cairo, Tunis, Damascus, and Tripoli.
Those who had been well-educated or who held responsible positions at work resented being treated as the helpless children of a dictator, paternal or oppressive, in the public square.
New media technologies undermined the monopoly control of information once exercised by the state; anyone with a laptop could read newspapers from London to Sydney.
Islamism As A Stimulus For Liberal Ideas
Ideas circulated more freely. Some of those ideas -- such as radical Islamism -- had an ambivalent attitude (at best) to freedom and democracy.
Like all ideologies, however, Islamism provoked intellectual resistance as well as agreement.
Specialists and regional experts were equally dismissive of the prospects for uprisings in the Arab world until they happened
This often took the form of liberal ideas. And this subterranean but jostling market of different political concepts was united on one thing: opposition to the dictatorship.
Younger Arabs might not have put it in such terms, but twenty years later they wanted their share of perestroika. It arrived in the form of the Arab awakening.
Do the young people in Central Asia, Azerbaijan, and other post-Soviet authoritarian states want their share of the Arab awakening today?
The specialists and the regional experts tend to dismiss such a question as naive or at best premature. They point out awkward stumbling blocks such as the fact that there are no significant opposition movements in these societies, that their governments have religion under tougher control, and that Russia and China, as the dominant powers in the region, would never permit a successful democratic polity. Almost certainly they are right.
But the specialists and the regional experts were equally dismissive of the prospects for uprisings in the Arab world until they happened.
And even when they happened, they did so in the Arab countries considered by the experts to be the least vulnerable to such upheavals.
Change Occurs Below The Radar
How many experts predicted a revolution in stable and moderately progressive Tunisia? Or believed that ordinary Syrians would willingly give their lives for liberty day after day after day?
Experts almost by definition know and understand the status quo. They can describe the institutions of power, their tribal roots, their methods of control, their ability to conscript or neuter opposition, in minute detail.
Almost without realizing it they begin to assume that such institutions are unassailable. And they are right until -- suddenly and surprisingly -- they are wrong.
The history of the last two centuries, as the Canadian writer Mark Steyn
repeatedly reminds us, is the story of how vast, dominant, and well-rooted powers have crumbled and dissolved almost overnight from the Czarist autocracy to the Soviet Empire.
There is a reason why the experts are confounded by revolutions and the fall of empires every twenty years or so. The one variable they cannot measure is the change in the mentality of the subjects of the power.
It occurs below the radar screen of the experts. It occurs slowly and all but imperceptibly. Warning signs of it are usually obscured -- oh happy irony! -- by the repressive apparatus of the dictator. And the fact that it has happened is only clear at the moment when a subject rises up, openly resists the oppressive power as a citizen, and is joined to their mutual surprise by thousands of other citizens.
The spark that lights the conflagration can be a very minor everyday event -- the police beating up a suspect, for instance -- but it changes everything.
That said, let me return to my question: do the young people of Central Asia, the Caucasus, Belarus, and other post-Soviet authoritarian states want their share of the Arab awakening?
Do they think that it has lessons for them? Do they believe that something similar is possible in their societies and in their lives?
Have they a sense that they and their friends are still in the grip of a despairing acceptance that they are governed by an unaccountable power?
Or do they feel that they will overcome that despairing acceptance and win the liberty which the Libyans have gained this week and for which the Syrians are still fighting?
The only experts on such matters are you, the readers of this article. What do you think?
John O'Sullivan is executive editor of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL