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The Middle East is burning

January 27th, 2011

It was embarrassment that drove Mohamed Bouzazi to douse himself in paint thinner and light himself on fire. After the apples that he sold to support his family were confiscated by government workers; after he was slapped in the face and publicly beaten by them – twice; after one of them insulted his dead father; after he walked to the governor’s office, demanded an audience, and was refused, the 26-year-old Tunisian felt his dignity had been permanently robbed.

I doubt Bouzazi thought his suicide would spark a revolution that would topple his country’s authoritarian dictator. But it did. And now the revolutionary fervor he inspired is spreading like fire – literally – across the Middle East. In the past few weeks, there have been at least 11 instances of Arabs imitating Bouzazi’s fiery self-immolation: five in Algeria, four in Egypt, and one each in Mauritania and Saudi Arabia.

Just as in the case of Bouzazi, these acts of martyrdom seem to have been driven by a shared sense of humiliation felt across the Arab world. From colonial manipulation to the Israeli annexation of Palestine in 1967 to the way so many current Arab leaders oppress their own citizens, the Arab world has had its dignity robbed for far too long.

Protestors burn a photo of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali during a demonstration in Tunis on Jan. 24 against holdovers from Ben Ali's regime in the interim government. (AP)

But the tide is finally turning. The Tunisian revolution has encouraged a wave of demonstrations across the Middle East, and even leaders in Arab countries that seemed immune to domestic turmoil are starting to worry. Massive anti-government protests have broken out in Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak has clung to power for almost 30 years. And in Jordan, thousands have taken to the streets in anger over economic hardships and lack of democratic reform. The most interesting aspect of all these protests is that they seem to transcend ideological lines. It’s not just the Islamists, or the liberals, or the trade groups who want change. It’s everyone.

However, while the Middle East is burning, it also has the potential to explode.

Palestine, at the physical and psychological heart of the Arab world, is home to the two bloodiest uprisings in modern Arab history. Despite the breakdown of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, the continued construction of Israeli settlements, and the second-class treatment they receive in their own homeland, the Palestinian people have so far remained surprisingly silent. But if peace talks continue to fail, then the revolutionary fervor that has hit other Arab countries could easily provoke a Third “Intifada” (or “uprising”), in the Palestinian territories against their Israeli occupiers.

If that happens, Israel will also have to deal with a re-armed Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, both of which are backed by Iran and Syria, resulting in the largest Arab-Israeli war since 1973. Of course, Israel will win … but victory will come at a high cost. The unified Arab force will make Israel bleed, and the Middle East will continue to burn.