Russian leader Vladimir Lenin once said: “‎There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen.” Indeed, in the twelve weeks since Mohammad Bouazizi immolated himself in Tunisia on December 17 and sparked a revolution, the Arab world has been transformed beyond recognition.

Three months after Bouazizi’s death, two presidents have been toppled, a third is fighting to stay in power, and protests have shaken regimes from Morocco to Yemen. Yet the feelings of optimism and hope that accompanied the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions have recently been mixed with concern over the course of events in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and other countries. 

Five dynamics seem to be at play. 

First, there is the positive dynamic of citizens mobilizing for long-overdue political change. This has been the dominant dynamic, which started in Tunisia, and spread to Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Bahrain, Yemen, and most recently Syria. It has led to a new empowerment and awareness of Arab citizens everywhere, and consolidation of the values of citizenship, political participation, pluralism, and respect for human rights.

In Tunisia and Egypt, the protests removed presidents and put those countries on a possible path to democracy. In Morocco and Oman, they have led to political and constitutional concessions. In Algeria, Jordan, and Yemen, they have squeezed concessions out of rulers as well. 

Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, however, has unleashed a second dynamic: that of a regime using all of the means at its disposal to brutally put down a popular rebellion. This was certainly done before in the Arab world, but regimes in Tunisia and Egypt recently preferred to negotiate rather than fight. Qaddafi has probably breathed hope back into the spirits of several Arab dictators, reminding them of the violent options that regimes still have at their disposal. And compared to Qaddafi’s brutality, repressive measures in other countries will seem quite mild in comparison. We already see more violence being used by regimes in Yemen and Bahrain. Qaddafi’s regime backlash has also dampened the optimism of protestors that dramatic change will be peaceful and rapid. 

A third dynamic is the return of regime power, not through direct military means but through a more complicated counter-revolution. In Tunisia, the ruling regime, ruling party, ministry of information, and intelligence services have been disbanded, and a government of non-regime technocrats has been put in place. And although the army is still largely in charge, it did not play as big a role in national life as it did in Egypt.

In Egypt, although the ruling family has been removed, the former ruling party is still powerful, most regime institutions are still in place, and the government still includes many appointees of former president Hosni Mubarak. Opposition figures in Egypt argue that the sectarian troubles of recent weeks—as well as other tensions in the country—are being fomented by regime loyalists to ruin the transition to democracy, and to create conditions of chaos that would justify a full re-imposition of authoritarian rule.

A fourth dynamic is the genuine potential for serious social, sectarian, and political unrest in countries in transition. Russia’s 1991 pro-democracy revolution was followed by years of social and economic chaos; France’s 1789 revolution led to years of internal strife. The sudden removal of state repression lifts the lid on communal, class, and other tensions that lay dormant for years and could spiral violently out of control. Protests in Bahrain have sparked sectarian street clashes, and protests in Yemen also carry the risk of degenerating into tribal and regional confrontations. Certainly some of these clashes might be fomented by regime loyalists to sully the revolutionary momentum, but these social tensions also have a risk and a momentum of their own, as Iraq and Lebanon discovered in past years and decades.  

The fifth dynamic is that of Western intervention. The power of the Arab revolutions so far is that they have been indigenous, and have toppled regimes—and pro-Western regimes to be precise—without any significant external help, except the television crews of al-Jazeera and al-Arabiyyah, and the web services of Facebook and Google. But in Libya, the pro-democracy rebels were at immediate risk of devastation without some form of external military help—at least in the form of a no-fly zone.  The UN Security Council resolution has so far been implemented by Western forces, although Qatar, the UAE, and Turkey have promised to participate as well.

The risk is that Western military involvement will change the public narrative in the region from one of popular rebellion to that of East-West confrontation. That is certainly what Qaddafi is trying to propagate. Perhaps many Arab leaders would favor this old narrative, because they know it will shift public attention away from domestic protest and toward familiar issues of Western intervention in Arab countries. It is important that the Western coalition include immediate and visible participation from Arab and Muslim allies in order to counter this rising narrative.

The events of the last three months show that Bouazizi’s simple act in Tunisia has unleashed massive and complex forces throughout the Arab world. The long bottled-up momentum for political change has been released. This is a force for good, and should be supported throughout the region. Representative and accountable governments are the only long-term guarantors of real political stability, sustainable economic growth, and balanced social policies. Even in the few weeks since December 17, tremendous and hopeful change has been brought to many Arab countries that have been stagnant for decades. And although this momentum for change has come up against serious obstacles in Libya and some other Arab countries, the tide is still strong.  

Supporters of progress in the Arab world should work closely with Egypt and Tunisia to ensure a stable transition to democracy; should encourage countries like Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, Syria, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and others to move forward on long-overdue political and socio-economic reforms; and should ensure Arab and Muslim participation in managing the crisis in Libya and in helping Libya regain national unity and move along the path of political change. 

Three months after Bouazizi, the clock cannot be turned back. History is moving forward. The world must make sure that it moves forward safely and steadily, and does not spiral back into chaos, violence, and more repression.