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In mid–December 2010, Tunisians from all walks of life came together to demonstrate against longstanding political and economic grievances: rampant corruption, a lack of freedom of speech and other civil and political freedoms, persistently high unemployment, rising food prices and a gaping divide between the rich and poor. By the end of January 2011, the largely peaceful protests ousted President Zine El–Abidine Ben Ali, paving the way for anticipated free and fair democratic elections.

The event sparked what is now being called “The Arab Spring” and inspired successive uprisings in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen and Syria as well as protests for democratic reforms in Algeria, Jordan, Morocco, Oman and Saudi Arabia.

On 25 January, Egyptian protesters took to the streets, demonstrating against the same longstanding political and economic grievances as had Tunisians in previous weeks. Despite violent attempts by authorities to disperse demonstrations, protesters refused to back down or resort to violence. On 11 February, President Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign, ending his 30–year rule.

The successes in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia demonstrate that many people in the Muslim world want democracy and believe it compatible with Islam. They also prove that the Arab world’s mukhabarat are not unshakable but can be deposed or forced to implement democratic reforms.

As the Arab Spring proceeds, observers must remember that a successful transition to democracy is a difficult and fragile process of trial and error.

Egyptians and Tunisians face many challenges in the months ahead, chief of which is establishing new democratically elected governments. Though expectations are high that these governments will set the stage for a prosperous future founded on the respect for the rule of law and human rights, nothing is certain.

Even if Egyptians and Tunisians successfully establish democratic mechanisms that ensure free and fair elections with broad public participation, this alone does not guarantee society will embrace other democratic values. More specifically, the democratic principle of religious pluralism has already manifested as a thorny issue in the post–Arab Spring world.

Most Egyptians embrace religious diversity; earlier this year, Muslims and Copts protested side by side in the streets, chanting in unison: “Hold your head high; you are an Egyptian.”

However, some militant Islamists virulently resent the country’s ancient Christian Coptic minority. In recent months, a string of violent attacks on Copts serve as a chilly reminder that myopic religious world views can turn ugly.

In Alexandria this past New Year’s Eve, a few minutes after midnight, an Islamist suicide–bomber detonated explosives at the entrance of a Coptic church, where parishioners were celebrating the Divine Liturgy. The blast killed 23 people and wounded 97 others.

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Tags: Middle East Islam Arab Spring Democracy