For decades, the Arab states have seemed exceptions to the laws of politics and human nature. While liberty expanded in many parts of the globe, these nations were left behind, their freedom deficit signaling the political underdevelopment that accompanied many other economic and social maladies. In November 2003, President George W. Bush laid out this question:
Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty? Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism? Are they alone never to know freedom and never even have a choice in the matter?
The massive and violent demonstrations underway in Egypt, the smaller ones in Jordan and Yemen, and the recent revolt in Tunisia that inspired those events, have affirmed that the answer is no and is exploding, once and for all, the myth of Arab exceptionalism. Arab nations, too, yearn to throw off the secret police, to read a newspaper that the Ministry of Information has not censored and to vote in free elections. The Arab world may not be swept with a broad wave of revolts now, but neither will it soon forget this moment.
So a new set of questions becomes critical. What lesson will Arab regimes learn? Will they undertake the steady reforms that may bring peaceful change, or will they conclude that exiled Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali erred only by failing to shoot and club enough demonstrators? And will our own government learn that dictatorships are never truly stable? For beneath the calm surface enforced by myriad security forces, the pressure for change only grows - and it may grow in extreme and violent forms when real debate and political competition are denied.
The regimes of Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak proffered the same line to Washington: It's us or the Islamists. For Tunisia, a largely secular nation with a literacy rate of 75 percent and per capita GDP of $9,500, this claim was never defensible. In fact, Ben Ali jailed moderates, human rights advocates, editors - anyone who represented what might be called hope and change.
Mubarak took the same tack for three decades. Ruling under an endless emergency law, he has crushed the moderate opposition while the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood has thrived underground and in the mosques. Mubarak in effect created a two-party system - his ruling National Democratic Party and the Brotherhood - and then defended the lack of democracy by saying a free election would bring the Islamists to power.
Of course, neither he nor we can know for sure what Egyptians really think; last fall's parliamentary election was even more corrupt than the one in 2005. And sometimes the results of a first free election will find the moderates so poorly organized that extreme groups can eke out a victory, as Hamas did when it gained a 44-to-41 percent margin in the Palestinian election of 2006. But we do know for sure that regimes that make moderate politics impossible make extremism far more likely. Rule by emergency decree long enough, and you end up creating a genuine emergency. And Egypt has one now.
Angry Friday brought tens of thousands of Egyptians into the streets all over the country, demanding the end of the Mubarak regime. The huge and once-feared police forces were soon overwhelmed and the Army called in. Even if these demonstrations are crushed, Egypt has a president who will be 83 at the time of this fall's presidential election. Every day Hosni Mubarak survives in power now, he does so as dictator propped up by brute force alone. Succession by his son Gamal is already a sour joke, and one must wonder whether Egypt's ruling elites, civilian and military, will wish to tie their future to Hosni Mubarak rather than seeking a new face.
All these developments seem to come as a surprise to the Obama administration, which dismissed Bush's freedom agenda as overly ideological and meant essentially to defend the invasion of Iraq. But as Bush's support for the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon and for a democratic Palestinian state showed, he was defending self-government, not the use of force.
Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was a deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration.