A new political consciousness will be enduring

The Arab Spring has already accomplished an important change: the future of many Middle East countries is now in the hands of their people. How this power will be used remain to be seen, but the Arab Awakening is now irreversible.

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On February 11, a few weeks after the abdication of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak was forced out after three decades as president of Egypt amid an outpouring of emotion in Cairo's Tahrir Square. After 18 days of demonstrations sometimes met with brutality, the Egyptian people were, in their own words, free at last. It was the high point of what has come to be called the Arab Spring.

For many people, the real beginning of this change was six months ago today, when the Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi set in motion a historic sequence of events with his self-sacrifice. We do not know how it will end, certainly differently for each country, and certainly not without a heavy cost, which every nation has begun to feel. For all that uncertainty, the future of many Arab nations is increasingly in the hands of their people.

Even before the celebrations in Cairo had ended, the unrest sweeping the Middle East was turning violent. On February 17, thousands of Libyans voiced their opposition to the rule of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi in demonstrations across the country. They were met with death squads and air strikes, leading to the civil war that continues to this day. Meanwhile, violence has marred protests in Yemen, Bahrain and, now most worryingly, Syria. Some have said the Arab Spring has ground to a halt. Now the economic consequences of the turmoil are being felt.

But people in these nations and others have experienced an awakening that continues to spread, calling for real reforms that would allow them the opportunity of a better life.

For decades, the accepted wisdom for many western governments was that Arabs in general, Egyptians in particular, were politically disengaged and could be ignored in deference to their leaders. But the recent developments have shown that the notion of "Arab exceptionalism" - the claim that Arabs do not aspire to personal freedom and the opportunity to prosper based on abilities - was a work of self-serving fiction.

In the 1950s and 1960s pan-Arabism was meant to empower a region long under colonial rule. Ultimately, it ended up empowering just a handful of men who ruled through force and fear. In contrast, a news sense of nationalism is demanding individual rights and respect from their own governments.

The world is slowly realising that stable societies, justice and accountability are universal concepts that belong in the Middle East as much as anywhere. How long the Middle East will have to wait for that reality, and at what cost, remains to be seen.