The Wind of Change – in the Arab World and Beyond

Commentary No. 300, March 1, 2011

Fifty-one years ago, on Feb. 3, 1960, the then Prime Minister of Great Britain, Harold Macmillan, a Conservative, addressed the South African parliament, governed by the party that had constructed apartheid as its basis of government. He made what has come to be called the “wind of change” speech. It is worth recalling his words:

“The wind of change is blowing through this continent, and whether we like it or not, the growth of national consciousness is a political fact. We must all accept it as a political fact, and our national policies must take account of it.”

South Africa’s Prime Minister, Hendrik Verwoerd, did not appreciate the talk and rejected its premises and its advice. The year 1960 has come to be called the Year of Africa, because 16 colonies become independent states that year. Macmillan’s speech was in fact really addressing the issue of those states in the southern half of the continent that had significant groups of White settlers (and often great mineral resources), who resisted the very idea of universal suffrage in which Black Africans would constitute the overwhelming majority of the voters.

Macmillan was scarcely a radical. He explained his reasoning in terms of winning over Asian and African populations to the Western side in the Cold War. His speech was significant in that it was the signal that the leaders of Great Britain (and subsequently those of the United States) saw the cause of White electoral dominance in southern Africa as a doomed cause that might drag the West down alongside them. The wind kept blowing, and in one country after another the African majority won their case, until in 1994 South Africa itself succumbed to universal suffrage and elected Nelson Mandela as its president. In the process, however, the economic interests of Great Britain and the United States were somehow preserved.

There are two lessons we can draw from this. One is that winds of change are very strong and probably impossible to resist. The second is that once the winds sweep away the symbols of tyranny, it is not at all certain what will follow. Once the symbols fall, everyone retrospectively denounces them. But everyone also wants their own interests to be preserved in the new structures that emerge.

The second Arab revolt that began in Tunisia and Egypt is now engulfing more and more countries, and no doubt some further symbols of tyranny will fall or will concede major modifications of their internal state structures. But who will then retain the power? Already in Tunisia and Egypt we see a situation in which the new prime ministers have been persons who were key figures in the previous regime. And the army in both countries seems to be telling protestors to stop protesting. In both countries, there are returnees from exile who are assuming posts and seeking to continue, even expand, ties with the very countries in western Europe and North America that had sustained the previous regimes. To be sure, the popular forces are fighting back, and just now have been able to force the resignation of the Tunisian prime minister.

In the middle of the French Revolution, Danton counseled “de l’audace, encore de l’audace, toujours de l’audace.” (“Audacity, more audacity, always audacity.”) Good advice perhaps, but Danton was guillotined not long thereafter. And those who guillotined him were in turn guillotined. After that we had Napoleon, and then the Restoration, and then 1848, and then the Paris Commune. By 1989, at the Bicentennial, virtually everyone retrospectively was in favor of the French Revolution, but one can reasonably ask if the trinity of the French Revolution – liberty, equality, and fraternity – have in fact been realized.

There are some things that are different today. The wind of change is now truly worldwide. For the moment, the epicenter is the Arab world, and the wind is still whirling ferociously there. No doubt, the geopolitics of this region will never be the same. The key places on which to keep one’s eyes are Saudi Arabia and Palestine. If the Saudi monarchy comes under serious challenge – and it seems at least possible that it will – no regime in the Arab world will feel safe. And if the wind of change leads the two main political forces of Palestine to join hands, even Israel may feel it necessary to adapt to the new realities and take account of Palestinian national consciousness, whether it likes it or not – to paraphrase Harold Macmillan.

Needless to say, the United States and western Europe are doing everything in their power to channel, limit, and redirect the wind of change. But their power is not what it used to be. And the wind of change is blowing within their very own home grounds. That is the way of winds. Their direction and momentum is not constant and therefore not predictable. This time the wind is very strong. It may not be so easy any more to channel, limit, and redirect it.