Paul Greenberg

It isn't T.E. Lawrence's revolt in the desert, leading a hodgepodge of Arab tribes across the desert in the Arab revolt against the Turks in the World War, Act I. That was the stuff of which legend was made. And myth.

This time the Arabs are rebelling against their own hodgepodge of kings, dictators, autocrats, demagogues and all of the above. The crumbling old pillars of the region, long rotten from within, are falling one by one. Or at least trembling.

The Arab Revolt of 2011 spreads. And spreads and spreads. And not just among the Arabs. From west to east, from Morocco on the Atlantic to aftershocks in Iran and even a Facebook tremor in far away Cathay, the natives are restless. The spark ignited in Tunisia is starting fires of hope (and fear) across the East -- Near, Middle and Far. And it won't be clear for some time whether this fire will cast more heat or light.

The big surprise is that it should have taken so long in the face of years, decades, centuries of oppression. The stillborn or soon strangled Arab democracies set up after the First World War now stir again, like dry bones coming to life after all these years.

Something tells me Col. Lawrence would approve. Maybe what it took to revive his Arab Revolt was the Arabs themselves rather than another Englishman intoxicated with Arabia Deserta. Maybe what did it this time was another Western intervention -- the Internet and its latest high-speed forums, Twitter and Facebook. Their consequences are as unpredictable as those of Herr Gutenberg's movable type. We live, to quote an old Chinese curse, in interesting times.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for those who long assumed that autocracy was a permanent feature of Arabdom was the revolt's appearance in, of all places, Libya. For years, for decades, Moammar Gadhafi's grip on that country and fiefdom went unquestioned, at least by outsiders. The rule of Libya's erratic dictator/prophet/nutcase was taken to be permanent, his dynastic rule as assured as, well, Hosni Mubarak's hold on Egypt. But the surprises keep coming. What would surprise by now would be the absence of an upheaval in any Arab country. (When will Syria's turn come, if ever?)

This year's Arab Revolt is spreading even into the heart of Islam. A hundred thousand turned out to protest in oil-rich Bahrain. (The informal name of that tiny oildom long ago became Oil Rich Bahrain.) Its king is now freeing some political prisoners in hopes of quelling what may prove an unquellable trend.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.