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Explaining the Arab Spring

An opposition supporter flashes the victory sign as he holds an Egyptian flag atop a lamp post near a mosque in Tahrir Square in Cairo February 7, 2011. (Credit: Reuters/Yannis Behrakis)At the first of 2011, who of us would have imagined that Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak would be displaced by a pro-democracy movement fueled by social media? Or that activists would oust the dictator of Tunisia, force the leader of Jordan to replace his government, and fill the streets of Tehran and Tripoli with demonstrators? How did this unprecedented uprising in the Arab world begin? What is its relevance to the rest of the world? What is its spiritual significance?

In 2005, a group in Egypt organized "Youth for Change," but many tried working through established parties without success. In 2008 the group attempted to organize isolated labor strikes, but bad weather and police crackdowns defeated their efforts. A year ago, their movement gained a strategic ally when Wael Ghonim, the now-famous Google marketing executive, joined their ranks.

He set up a Facebook group named for Khalid Said, the young Egyptian who was beaten to death by police last year. His page attracted hundreds of thousands of followers. They focused on January 25, which is Police Day in Egypt (a holiday which celebrates a police revolt suppressed by the British in 1952). More than 100,000 signed up to join their protest, and the rest is history.

Their movement illustrates the power of social media. In a recent edition of Foreign Affairs, Clay Shirky documented numerous examples of social revolution fomented in this way. In 2001, text messages produced a million-person crowd in Manila, forcing the removal of Philippine President Joseph Estrada. In 2004, demonstrations organized by text messaging led to the ouster of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar. In 2009, massive protests coordinated by social media caused the downfall of the Communist Party in Moldova. And in 2009, the Green Movement in Iran made global headlines, fueled by social media. Now we can add the Egyptian revolt to the list.

Why is this movement relevant to the rest of the world?

Egypt is most populous nation in the Arab world and Israel's most significant political partner, supplying 40% of Israel's natural gas. It also controls the Suez Canal, through which oil shipments are carried from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean and on to Europe and America. No one knows what would happen to the price of gasoline if these shipments were disrupted or halted. And regimes in this region sympathetic to al-Qaeda would strengthen radical Muslims around the world.

Is this movement toward democracy a good thing?

Writing in a recent issue of World Affairs, Melik Kaylan chided America for refusing to encourage our values in Iraq. During the Cold War, he argues, we offered the world a coherent Western way of life. Today we no longer believe we have anything to teach other cultures. It is conventional wisdom that there are no absolutes—so long as we're sincere in our beliefs and tolerant of others, we'll all get along.

Here's the problem: If we "liberate" a people only so they can conduct democratic elections, we can leave them victim to whatever forces are most organized at the time. There will almost always be a militant opposition to the existing government ready to step into the power vacuum that results, usually to the detriment of the people. This happened when Hamas surprised the world by winning elections in Gaza; a similar process created the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. It could happen again with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

It is vital that America encourage democratic reforms around the world. But it is equally urgent that a moral and spiritual foundation for democracy be built as well. In his farewell address (September 19, 1796), President George Washington stated that "virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government." Thomas Jefferson agreed that "a nation must take measures to encourage its members along the paths of justice and morality."

A spiritual awakening must accompany the political revolution occurring in the Arab world. Already, more Muslims are coming to Christ than ever before. I invite you to join me in praying every day for a great awakening in the Middle East. We could be on the edge of a spiritual phenomenon of global significance. Let's join the front lines of this spiritual battle, on our knees.

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