People hold a candlelight vigil in Tunis, Tunisia, to mourn the dozens who… (Martin Bureau / AFP / Getty…)
Reporting from Cairo — The Arab world had been empty of hope for years, but then, at the dawn of winter, Tunisia tumbled into anarchy and, suddenly, Arabs spotted a glimmer of renewal.
Mohammad Bouazizi was a fruit seller of little consequence until he set himself on fire last month and ignited a wave of street protests that brought down an autocratic regime. The act of a single man sacrificing all in a moment of defiance symbolized the desperation felt by millions of Arabs.
Writers and intellectuals, scrap men and taxi drivers now speak bravely about the prospect of rebirth across the Middle East. Facebook pages bloom with strategies for rebellion. Jordanians, Libyans and Algerians have taken to the streets. Egyptians are planning nationwide demonstrations.
"The Tunisian revolution has brought hope to all Arabs," said Amira Nader, an Egyptian costume designer. "I had lost any enthusiasm that an Arab population could one day get rid of an authoritarian regime. Most Arabs, including myself, had reached the point where we didn't believe in our abilities to change.... We had been disillusioned for so many years."
Arabs should ask how it is "possible to emulate the Tunisian model," columnist Urayb Rintawi wrote in Jordan's Al Dustour newspaper. In an "age of decline and cesspools," he wondered, "how is it possible to restore faith in this nation's ability to join the train of freedom, democracy and change?"
These concerns are being raised from the edges of North Africa to the circuitous coast of the Arabian Peninsula. They strike at the recent Middle East past, when Arab states emerged from colonialism only to be scorched by the failed hope of pan-Arabism and embarrassingly defeated by Israel in the 1967 war.
What followed were years of doubt and turmoil: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Islamic extremism, the Iraq war, sectarianism and a deepening authoritarian rule from Cairo to Dubai marked by corruption, poverty and human rights abuses.
Many Arabs began to believe the myth that they could not rise up and fix all that had gone wrong. Like a doomed man in a spy novel, the region veered from anger to resignation, from intrigue to delusion.
Arabs stewed. They blamed U.S. policy; they blamed Osama bin Laden; they blamed Israel; they blamed countless outside forces, seldom peering inward. They felt powerless.
Then came the WikiLeaks website's release of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables that revealed the underside of Arab regimes, including Tunisian President Zine el Abidine ben Ali's, a portrait of corruption complete with a stolen yacht, a tiger kept in a cage and a lavish dinner with ice cream flown in from the French Riviera.
Arabs were at once titillated and outraged. Tunisia, with more of an educated and cosmopolitan middle class than much of the region, grew increasingly restless. Bouazizi's self-immolation was the galvanizing act against hopelessness. In recent days, nearly 10 other men have set themselves ablaze across North Africa and in Sudan. And everyone wonders where the tear gas will blow next.
"It is as if the Egyptians were watching a 'mini-rehearsal' of what could happen in their own country," Khalid Shami said in the pan-Arab Al Quds al Arabi newspaper. "And this poses the urgent question as to whether 'Egypt is next in line,' as many of them hoped."
Egypt's police state is strong and pervasive, much more adept at crushing protests than its Tunisian counterpart. The commitment of dissidents and the government should be tested Tuesday, when activists have called for national demonstrations, nearly two months after President Hosni Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party was widely accused of stealing parliamentary elections.
The disparate Egyptian opposition movement historically has been unable to draw out the masses. The country epitomizes today's troubled Arab state: an entrenched president whose U.S.-backed secular government is corrupt and unable to lift people out of poverty while it struggles with Islamic extremism.
"A copycat revolution may not take place in Egypt," said Hesham Kamel Aly, a 27-year-old accountant. "The educated and cultured classes — those that helped mobilize Tunisia's revolution — are happy with their lives in Egypt.... We lack the desire from the middle class to turn poor people's rage and anger into a real political outcry."
Whatever unfolds in Egypt or other nations, though, Arabs, at least temporarily, sense a bit of pride and optimism.
"After a time during which we used to offer catastrophic models of 'Lebanonization,' 'Somalization,' and 'Iraqization,' we now have a model that is worthy of respect to offer the world: 'Tunisification,' " Yasser abu-Hilalah wrote in Jordan's Al Ghad newspaper.
"Those who grew up in the shadow of systematic and destructive repression for 23 years have toppled the dictator without being implicated in violence, terrorism, or links to foreign powers. They did not need any favors from anyone."
Amro Hassan of The Times' Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.