A few weeks ago, I was a guest on a news programme addressing the unrest in Egypt. The host asked me what the repercussions would be elsewhere in the Middle East. I answered that they would vary depending on the country, then added that I was uncomfortable with the meta-narrative of a region moving towards greater freedom.
The joke was definitely on me. And it has been on quite a number of us lately as proliferating revolts in the Arab world and Iran have shattered smug certitudes about the region. What I should have recognised when answering the question was that the second part of my response accommodated the first: the meta-narrative of a region fighting for freedom is precisely what has allowed different Arab societies expressing different discontents to situate their protests in a broader, unified upsurge. In other words, Arab diversity, far from obstructing a yearning for Middle East change, was flexible enough to adapt and feed into that overriding yearning.
In times of rapid change, the urge is to discover truths that explain what is going on, and to predict what might happen next. What we're now left with is a necropolis of misjudgements. The most common was that Islamists would inherit power in Egypt and Tunisia, a plot line once peddled by the countries' authoritarian rulers to justify their repression. Plainly, the situation was considerably more complicated than that in both places, even if the tendency to doubt the former conventional wisdom may now push us into the equally risky direction of understating the ability of Islamists to gain power.
An equally ambiguous point is whether the revolts, or some of them, were anti-American or anti-Israeli. It is quite likely that the United States was unpopular among many demonstrators, and rightly so, for having been a long-standing sponsor of their tormentors. And Israel's abuse of the Palestinians will continue to provoke great antagonism among Arabs. However, neither America nor Israel are why people have taken to the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen or Bahrain. If there has been a consistent theme these past weeks, it is that Arab populations have been largely consumed by domestic aspirations, even as they look toward other angry Arab societies for inspiration.
This is very unlike the 1950s and 1960s, when national liberation and Arab nationalism prevailed as mobilising forces. Then, emancipation was directed outwards, in favour of Arab unity and against foreign control, above all western. Today, the impulse is accompanied by an irrepressible urge to partake of the modern world, with the privileges and advantages this must bring with it, not to be prisoners of archaic patriarchal regimes that only remind citizens of how incapable they are of making their own choices. These choices may entail opposing the United States and Israel or not doing so, but most protesters lately have not defined themselves through either country.
Nor is this new. Reading back over western writings about Iraq after 2003, it is odd how a majority were focused on the United States. The Iraqis were virtually airbrushed out of their own narrative (just as they had been before the Americans invaded). And yet they were the ones who mattered, who later imposed their priorities on American officials, and who wrote the most compelling chapters in their own revival, beginning with the election of January 2005. It was not really about America, just as Lebanon's Independence Intifada the same year was not about America, just as the revolts today are not about America.
Yet another myth that has been circulating widely is that the uprisings in the Arab world show the influence of satellite television and social media. Media have played an important role in fanning the messages of dissatisfaction, but as the author Mark Perry has written, it is ideas alone that kindle the "fires of revolutions". Take Libya: there, the internet and satellite channels have been blocked in recent days, but the rebellion has spread even more quickly than in Egypt and Tunisia. The meta-narrative of freedom has replaced media in Libya, lending to acts of deliverance the vigour of romance - albeit attended by the terror of losing to a tyrant who is already exacting terrible revenge.
One recurring feature of most of the countries currently facing conflict is that all their leaders planned to hand off power to one of their children or one of their children's spouses. In essence, purported republics hoped to transform themselves into dynastic orders. The Arab state has been so depraved during recent decades that we had almost forgotten that republicanism might yet retain some meaning for Arab citizens. There is no ambiguity in monarchy, which can generate legitimate means of interaction between state and society. However, there is a fundamental tension between a republic, where citizens are supposedly sovereign and officeholders supposedly interchangeable, and a system methodically thwarting these expectations through mechanisms of monarchical leadership.
But what this tells is that, conceptually, the brush fire consuming the Middle East has become whatever one wants it to be. If one advocates majoritarianism, the tendency may be to point to Bahrain. If one is repulsed by the madness of absolute leadership, then observing the 41-year rule of Muammar Qaddafi offers instruction. That's the benefit of meta-narratives: they provide a single meaning where there are infernally many to consider. They may not always be accurate, but they can drive events in the streets. Those of us who thought we knew better should acknowledge the potency of simple ideas.
Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle