Even for a region that has experienced more than its fair share of upheaval, the downfall of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak last week was nothing less than a political earthquake.
After just 18 days of unyielding protests, the largest and most powerful Arab country in the Middle East saw its regime swept away with relative ease, something that could not have gone unnoticed by other regional potentates.
All it took was a little “people power,” and some smoldering fury, to unseat a man who had long ago become a fixture on the scene.
Needless to say, the wily Mubarak did not go without a fight. Like any autocrat, he sought to stifle the mounting pressure for his removal by resorting to various tried and true methods, from censoring the media to sending in goon squads to attack the protesters.
But it all came to naught, as a new order succeeded in vanquishing him.
Mubarak’s demise marked the second time in the past month that an Arab despot once thought invincible was dispatched into early retirement.
On January 14, Tunisian president Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia after a wave of protests brought about an end to his 23-year-long rule.
And now, from Algiers to Amman, there is growing impatience on the Arab street with the authoritarian governments in place throughout the area.
Mubarak’s departure is likely to inspire young Syrians, Yemenites and others to try and shake off their own shackles and usher in a new era of greater freedom.
But just how far afield the tremors emanating from Cairo will be felt is open to question.
Jordan’s King Abdullah and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad have already taken steps to try to appease their subjects, tossing them a few democratic bones in the hopes it will satisfy their appetites and keep them from storming the local version of the Bastille.
And there is hardly going to be any additional outside pressure coming from the U.S. or Europe, given the fear that growing instability will bring down other pro-Western Arab regimes.
Nonetheless, you can almost hear the hearts of Arab leaders beating louder and faster as they ponder their own fates in an increasingly dynamic and uncertain situation.
The Arab world, after all, is still a living encyclopedia of outmoded forms of government, from sultanates such as Oman and emirates such as Qatar, to thuggish dictatorships such as Syria and dynastic monarchies along the lines of Jordan.
It may be a political scientist’s dream, but it is a nightmare for the hundreds of millions of Arabs chafing under oppression and tyranny.
Basic and fundamental freedoms such as personal autonomy and individual rights are routinely trampled upon, and ethnic and religious minority groups suffer extreme discrimination and intolerance. Just ask Coptic Christians in Egypt, Baha’is in Iran or Shi’ites in Saudi Arabia for starters.
This was borne out most recently by a report issued by Freedom House, the independent Washington-based group that advocates for freedom worldwide. According to its annual survey, “Freedom in the World,” of the 18 countries in the Middle East, only one is considered to be “free.”
And that one, of course, is Israel.
Not a single Arab country – not one – did Freedom House consider fully “free.”
In effect, then, this means that of the approximately 370 million human beings currently residing in the Middle East, only 2 percent enjoy true freedom – namely, those who live in the Jewish state.
With the world’s attention focused on the region, it is essential to underline the repressive and high-handed nature of the various Arab regimes. Pro-Israel activists need to make the case that if there is apartheid to be found in the Middle East, it is in those Arab countries that oppress the majority of their citizens while denying them the basic right to elect their own leaders.
Now is the time to drive home the extent of “Arab Apartheid” while emphasizing the danger this poses to the West and its interests.
Doing so could reframe the debate and generate greater sympathy and understanding for the challenges facing Israel.
Sure, no one knows what democracy might bring to Egypt and elsewhere, and the threat of Islamist fundamentalists taking over is very real. It will require great diplomatic skill, and some profound strategic thinking, to navigate the coming weeks and months.
But we cannot and must not miss out on this opportunity to remind the world of a very crucial truth: Israel is living in a neighborhood ruled largely by bullies and brutes.
Michael Freund is chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), a Jerusalem-based organization that reaches out and assists “lost Jews” seeking to return to the Jewish people. His Jewish Press-exclusive column appears the third week of each month.