When the democratic revolt in Tunisia successfully ousted the old regime, the world reacted with amazement. Democracy from below in the Arab world?
After the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak's 30-year-old regime in Egypt, the heartland of the Middle East, amazement has turned into certainty. The Middle East has awakened and begun to enter the globalised world of the 21st century. Up to now, the region (excluding Israel and Turkey) had more or less missed out on the epochal process of worldwide modernisation.
Whether the Arab and wider Islamic world's democratic awakening will actually prevail or produce only change at the top of authoritarian regimes, whether it will lead to a stable order or sustained chaos and radicalisation, still remains unclear.
One thing, however, is already clear: the era when this vast region slept while others modernised has ended.
The grassroots revolt will, of course, continue. Virtually no country in the region will escape it, though when and where the next eruption will occur remains uncertain. Iran, Syria, and some other states in the region are all candidates.
Israel, too, would be well advised to prepare for epochal change in the region and try to reach a peace settlement with the Palestinians and Syria as quickly as possible. There is, however, little indication that Israel's government has the vision required for such an undertaking.
The problems are the same almost everywhere (with the exception of Israel and Turkey): political suppression, economic underdevelopment and grinding poverty (except in the smaller Gulf states), a lack of education, high unemployment, and huge demographic pressures, owing to a very young and rapidly growing population.
These problems have been cited, year after year, in the United Nations Development Programme's reports. Moreover, the situation was exacerbated by the incompetence of the region's authoritarian regimes, which have been unable to provide their young people with any prospects beyond repression.
So it was only a matter of time until this powder keg was ignited.The fuses were the new information technologies of the internet and satellite television, such as Al Jazeera.
Indeed, one historical irony is that it wasn't American hard power — as applied, for example, in the Iraq war — that furthered this democratic revolution, but rather its soft power — Twitter and Facebook — which was much maligned under George W. Bush and his neocon advisers.
Silicon Valley, it seems, has more potency than the Pentagon.
These digital tools from the US became the instruments for a trans-Arabian/Iranian youth revolt for freedom and democracy. And, although many things in the Middle East are in short supply, there is no dearth of hopeless young people, whose numbers will continue to grow in the coming years.
Indeed, whatever resemblance events on Cairo's Tahrir Square bear to May 1968 in Paris and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it would be premature to proclaim that freedom has prevailed.
Whether it does will depend to a large degree on how the West responds now, because what is at stake is not just the ousting of tyrants, but also the profound transformation and modernisation of entire societies and economies. It is a staggering task.
Moreover, compared to Eastern Europe in 1989, the Middle East in 2011 lacks any stabilising external structures, such as Nato and the European Union, that could influence domestic reforms by holding out the prospect of membership. The efforts involved in this great transformation must come from within these societies, and this in all likelihood is asking too much.
Eastern Europe's transformation after 1989 took a lot longer and was much more costly than originally envisaged. There were many people who lost out during this transformation, and the democratic revolution's organisers were not necessarily those who could push through the democratic and economic development. And there is the experience of Ukraine's ‘Orange Revolution' in 2004, which failed a few years later due to the estrangement, incompetence, and corruption of its leaders.
Taken together, these constraints and analogies suggest that the West, particularly Europe, should focus on long-term assistance for the democratic and economic development of the Middle East's reborn countries, and also on partnerships with all forces that support their countries' democratisation and modernisation. The West can no longer continue with realpolitik as usual.
These tasks call for largesse, both financial and otherwise (opportunities to travel, for example, were of vital importance in locking in the democratic aspirations of East Europeans after 1989), and they require decades, not years, of persistence.
In other words, success will be expensive — very expensive — which will be anything but popular in the current economic downturn. But a democracy that does not translate into regular dinners is a democracy that is bound to fail.
Economic aid, the opening of the EU and US markets, strategic energy projects, legal and constitutional advice, and cooperation between universities are among the resources that the West must supply if it wants to contribute to the success of the Middle East's democratic awakening.
Should this awakening fail, the result will be a radicalisation throughout the region. There can be no return to the status quo ante. The genie is out of the bottle.
Joschka Fischer is the former German vice-chancellor