The Tunisian revolution began when a green grocer, Mohamed Bouazizi, self-immolated after suffering from severe police harassment. Through this brave, desperate act, he was transformed into the symbol of the new Arab revolution. Reflecting on Bouazizi’s ultimate act of protest, one can hardly conceive of what atmosphere and surroundings would compel an individual to resort to such an extreme.
The Arab states in the Middle East are ruled by dictators who act without mercy towards their own people and deprive them of their basic civil democratic rights. The anger rooted in decades of oppression and repression has finally bubbled up to the surface and erupted in the so-called “Arab Spring,” the wave of revolution and protest sweeping the region.
This cathartic expression of Arab peoples demanding their rights has in turn been met not with reform or concession, but with brutal, bloody crackdowns. The images broadcast from our regional neighbors are hard to watch: Live fire directed at protesters with lethal intentions in Syria and Yemen; missile fire on rebel and civilian positions in Libya; shelling, rape and mass killings of civilians by regime forces in Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and Syria.
Civilian protests and freedom of expression are basic principles integral to and respected in any advanced state. The violence unleashed against protesters is antithetical to these important values, but reflective of the old patterns that Arab regimes have consistently employed; brutality and political repression have been the hallmark of Arab political control for more than half a century.
Even those states which offer some democratic privileges to their citizens are in fact engaged in a type of political theater - their elections are farcical in that the despotic leadership fails to allow any real pluralism. Opposition groups are denied true free expression and a real, effective voice.
The extreme events we witnessed in recent weeks are contrary to all democratic and enlightenment principles. But they are the expected response from regimes that have already long demonstrated their total disregard for human rights and international values. Exactly as happened after Hamas took control of the Gaza strip in June 2007, these regimes have shown the inevitable outcome that results when non- and anti-democratic forces are given free rein over their populations.
Perhaps ironically, the only place in the Middle East where Arabs enjoy full democratic rights is the State of Israel. Arab citizens of Israel take for granted their freedom of movement, freedom of speech, the right to elect and be elected, freedom of assembly and protest - in short, all the individual and collective rights that are the essential and unassailable prerogatives of any citizen in any democratic state.
These rights don’t exist in any Arab state, but in Israel all of us, Jewish and Arab citizens alike, receive full civil rights. Everyone is equal in the eyes of Israeli law; all receive national insurance, education and national health care. Israel’s Arab citizens are also afforded affirmative action measures in educational institutions and government offices.
A poll published two months ago showed that a majority of east Jerusalem Arabs prefer to stay under Israeli rule rather than come under Palestinian Authority control. Many claimed they would be willing to leave their homes and relocate into Israel if their cities are transferred to PA control. Those living in Jerusalem are familiar with the phenomenon of east Jerusalem residents moving into Jewish neighborhoods - a trend in large part fueled by the fear that certain Arab communities in the city may be turned over to the PA. Apparently, Palestinian Arabs understand what we Israelis have often forgotten in recent years - the uniqueness of the state of Israel in the wild east.
Maybe the revolution in the Arab world will bring change, and the death and slaughter will bring about freedom of expression and, eventually, democracy. Alternatively, Islamic organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which represent a significant portion of the opposition, may take power, and true democracy will remain a distant dream.
One thing is certain: Israeli Arabs have nothing to worry about. They can freely exercise their democratic rights, and nobody will shoot them in the streets.
The writer is a member of the Young Likud