Protests around the Near and Middle East over the last three months have surprised many in the West, who may have thought that the sleeping giant of the region--its growing population and consciousness of conditions elsewhere in the world--would never express itself publicly. Apparently, the penetration of media--television, movies (video), cell phones, internet and texting, etc.--into previously "dark" parts of the globe has been having an effect. It has been thought that this phenomenon will eventually "open up" China to Western influences, much as Japan was "opened up" in the late 19th Century.
This concept of prying open previously "closed" societies, or those which had developed a sort of insular character, was an aspect of colonialism, chiefly the notion that Western powers could exploit Third World nations, with the excuse (pretext) that they were "civilizing them." But the domination of "primitive" or "backward" or weak societies by technologically superior Western powers was not an honorable duty. Britain's influence upon India, for instance, or South Africa, was undoubtedly a mixed blessing; much of Great Britain's vaunted technological and cultural "order" was simply imperialism in its purest form.
Most of the African, Asian and Middle Eastern regions today bear the vestiges of Western domination and meddling. Borders, relationships, class distinctions are hybrid adaptations of Western cultural organization and structure. Which is to say that they still look a good deal more like how we imagined they should look, than they would have, had there never been the colonial expansionism of the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries. We can't undo history and turn back the clock. The march of industrialism, capitalist development and exploitation, and intellectual enlightenment which has occurred over the last four centuries has an irrevocability about it which appears unstoppable. In a sense, the rise of China and India, Indonesia and the other Tigers fulfills a promise made at least two centuries ago, when the organization of society turned away from agrarian concentration of land, and mass production began to take hold. China and India are simply late-comers to the party. In the West, we're still surprised when the paradigm shift, foretold so long ago, has finally come to pass.
The Middle East is, in this respect, quite like Asia. Europe's "disintegration," as symbolized by the First World War, was an expression of the "delay" of Germany, Italy and Central Europe to achieve a widened enfranchisement of political power; they were latecomers too, and the dictatorships represented a transition between the old hereditary figure-heads of the Middle Ages, and the Parliamentary forms of Western Europe and America. The rise of China and India represents the same kind of transitional birthing pains. Mao ruled China with an iron fist, just as Britain dominated India. It may only be a matter of time before the real power centers of China--the present-day capitalists building great fortunes and influence on a global scale--sweep the old Communist hierarchy aside for more practical instrumentalities.
Are the rising societies of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere in the Near East, the harbinger of a real transition to a democratic-styled institutional framework? Or will these surging mass protest movements be hijacked by the old religious institutions which still guide much of the thinking and opinion in these societies? My guess is that it's still too early in the game, for us to expect parliamentary structures to be established. The tradition of dictatorial power is still stronger than any notion of Western style enfranchisement. That's true in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Lybia, Jordan, Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen. It would be unreasonably optimistic to expect anything better than theocratic oligarchies in any of these states, for at least another quarter century. Wishing won't make it otherwise.