I know this feeling.
It came over me in 1986, when Corazon Aquino led a people’s uprising over Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. I feel it now with every fresh report of developments in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya.
It is exhilaration. Joy. A sense of history moving forward, not backward, driven by ordinary people.
Suddenly dictators with absolute power and iron fists are gone, or barely there. Masses of everyday folks—giving voice to their long-deferred dreams of a better life—are not only demanding change but organizing themselves into functional groups, patrolling streets and even cleaning up after protests. It is just possible that an entire region may change in what, from history’s point of view, is the blink of an eye.
There are drawbacks, yes, and big risks besides. The reports of violence from Libya are disheartening, to say the least. Egypt’s military could change its mind about democratic reforms. Extremists could rise to power. The people, having won the right to vote, may elect leaders who scare us. It happened in Gaza with Hamas.
I believe it is worth the risk. And besides, it seems there is no going back, for the Middle East or the rest of us. For decades, U.S. foreign policy has joined forces with some very unsavory characters—the Marcoses and Mubaraks of this world—while the U.S. government trumpeted its commitment to freedom and democracy. The uprisings of the past weeks have, in a way, forced my country to a decision point. Either we believe our talk of rights and human worth and dignity, or we don’t.
There is also a lesson for those of us who cherish dialogue.
At its most mechanical level, dialogue involves voices and ears, speaking and listening. It is difficult to use your voice when you don’t have a voice—when your government prevents you from speaking or simply refuses to hear. Dialogue works only when all voices are free to speak and all ears are tuned to listen.
But the lesson I hear runs even deeper, and it is a lesson of hope. The protesters in the Middle East have shown us that, at the most fundamental level—beyond the oppression and ruthlessness and control of those who would silence us—we always have a voice. It can take extraordinary courage to use it. How many of us would do so when our lives are at stake? And yet this is precisely what the protesters have done. In the process, they have given us encouragement to do the same.
I will cherish the joy of this seismic change. I will pray for the future. And I will seek to use my voice in the spirit of these courageous souls.