When 26-year-old produce-stand vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire Dec. 17, 2010, in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, fatally injuring himself in an act of protest against the government, he dropped a match into the tinderbox that is the Middle East.
Some have likened his action to that of Gavrilo Princip, whose assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 ignited the flames of World War I and set in motion a chain of events that would ultimately reshape the world.
Since Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation, the president of Tunisia has fled the country, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been forced from office, and sometimes bloody protests have broken out in Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Algeria and other Arab nations. In some cases panicked governments shut down Internet and cell phone communications nationwide to slow the spread of antigovernment demonstrations. In others, tanks, armored personnel carriers and thousands of troops patrolled city streets to maintain control.
Where will things go from here? It's anyone's guess. Things could calm down temporarily, or they could grow much, much worse.
What's behind the growing unrest?
Mohamed Bouazizi saw little hope for his future. Frustrated at being unable to find a decent job, he could only find work manning a produce stand on a city street.
His desperation is shared by millions more not only in Tunisia, but throughout the Arab world where increasingly angry citizens see little opportunity to improve their lot while their rulers—often essentially dictators for life—enrich themselves and their families, friends and associates.
Their resentment is also often directed at the West—and the United States in particular—whom they see as subjugating the Muslim world, polluting it culturally and spiritually, while supporting puppet rulers and the often-hated state of Israel.
This feeds right into the hands of Islamic radicals and fundamentalists, who are always ready to stir unrest if it means opening the door to gaining more power for themselves in support of their goal to establish a worldwide community of Muslim believers under Islamic rule.
Chief among such groups is the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic group that originated in Egypt and wields considerable power there—so much so that it is likely to hold sizable influence in any elected government that takes shape in the post-Mubarak era. Spokesmen for the Muslim Brotherhood have already renounced Egypt's peace treaty with Israel, which would essentially return the two countries to a state of war.
The Muslim Brotherhood has given rise to various terrorist organizations. The charter of Hamas, which rules Gaza with an iron fist, says it "is one of the wings of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine." There are also links with the groups responsible for the 1997 massacre of 58 tourists at Luxor, Egypt, and the 1980 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat for signing a peace treaty with Israel. The 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Osama bin Laden's right-hand man Ayman al-Zawahiri were members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Could we see another Iran?
It's very difficult for Westerners to grasp the religious fervor that drives events in many Middle Eastern countries. Because few in the West take religion seriously, it's hard for them to fathom the deep religious beliefs that motivate so many people there. It also makes it difficult to understand the huge cultural differences, much less bridge them.
Those of us in advanced Western democracies would naturally sympathize with the demands of demonstrators in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and Yemen for greater rights and freedoms and a larger say in their governments and leaders. Most human beings rightfully yearn for such things.
But as former U.S. President George W. Bush learned—and as President Barack Obama may be learning now—"instant" democracy is a myth. Suddenly granting democratic self-rule to people steeped in a culture of being told what to do, sorely lacking in democratic ideals, used to looking to strongmen as saviors and divided over age-old antagonisms can sometimes create far more problems than it solves.
We need only consider the Gaza Strip, which in its first democratic election in 2006 swept the terror group Hamas into power. Its first election was also its last. We could also look at Iraq and Afghanistan, where attempts to institute democratic institutions after the ouster of strongman rulers like Saddam Hussein and Mullah Omar have proved bitter disappointments.
Like the citizens of Gaza, Iraqis and Afghanis have often looked to religious figures to lead them, and that has often only fostered further problems and divisions.
Another example we would do well to heed is Iran. The parallels between what is happening in Egypt today and events of the 1979 Iranian revolution are sobering. Leading up to that 1979 revolution, dissatisfaction among students and liberal-leaning members of Iranian society brought widespread protests much like those seen recently in Egypt. It wasn't long before vast public demonstrations brought the toppling of the pro-Western shah of Iran. Abandoned by his supporters in the West, he fled the country in disgrace.
For a time—very brief, as it turned out—it appeared that Iran might actually have a progressive, democratic government. But barely a month after the shah's departure, the Ayatollah Khomeini's followers took over and a fundamentalist revolution was in full swing. Iran quickly became a radicalized religious regime.
Now, three decades later, Iran is run by Ayatollah Khomeini's ideological offspring—including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose efforts to develop nuclear weapons have antagonized much of the Western world and inspired fear in many of his neighbors.
Why is Egypt so important?
As noted earlier, the goal of many Muslims is to establish a worldwide community of believers under an Islamic theocracy.
Egypt would be the grand prize for Islamic revolutionaries. With 80 million people, it is the Arab world's most populous country. After Israel, it also has the region's greatest military capability. It also controls one of the world's key shipping choke points, the Suez Canal, through which up to 2 million barrels of oil pass per day to hungry Western markets.
With its storied history and cultural legacy, Egypt holds a special place in the minds of Muslims worldwide. If Egypt were to turn from its secular government and embrace Islamic fundamentalism on a national level—and polls show that many of its people lean in that direction—it would be a huge boon to the revolutionary cause.
And make no mistake, the same methods that brought revolutionaries into power in Iran are very much at work in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East today. They first spread dissatisfaction and unrest, leading to chaos and uncertainty, causing the people to cry out for solutions and stability, after which they step in as the solution to the very problems they themselves created—and a totalitarian state is born. The only difference is that this time the authoritarian state is religious in nature.
Of course, it doesn't stop with just one country. If Egypt—the Arab world's most powerful and populous country—were to fall to such revolutionaries, it would greatly embolden similar movements in other nearby states. Like falling dominoes, one can easily envision the toppling of Arab monarchies and strongmen in Libya, Algeria and Morocco to the west and Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq to the east and northeast.
In a matter of a few weeks to a few days, the entire Middle East as we know it could be radically transformed. Rather than one terror-exporting Iran eagerly pursuing nuclear weapons, America and the West potentially could be faced with a dozen or more like it!
If this sounds too far-fetched to be true, remember that events like those leading up to the expulsion of the rulers in Tunisia and Egypt are also already taking place in Jordan, Algeria and Yemen!
What are the prophetic implications of these events?
The writers of The Good News have long urged our readers to closely watch events in the Middle East. And with good reason, for the Middle East will be at the center of events that in the near future will lead to the end of this age of human misrule and the establishment of the soon-coming reign of Jesus Christ.
But it will not be pretty! From the Middle East will flow events that will create chaos and turmoil on a scale unparalleled in human history. Jesus Christ Himself said of this time: "It will be a time of great distress, such as there has never been before since the beginning of the world, and will never be again. If that time of troubles were not cut short, no living thing could survive; but for the sake of God's chosen it will be cut short" (Matthew 24:21-22, Revised English Bible, emphasis added throughout).
The 11th chapter of the prophetic book of Daniel describes a ruler rising from the lands of the Middle East "at the time of the end" (verse 40). This individual—apparently the leader of an end-time alliance of Muslim nations (and remember that a primary goal of Islamic fundamentalists is to unite all Muslims under a central Islamic rule)—is referred to in this verse as "the king of the South."
Daniel's prophecy spans many centuries, from the time of the Persian Empire to the time of the end and Jesus Christ's return. In this chapter the terms "king of the South" and "king of the North" originally referred to two of the successors of Alexander the Great—two of his generals who, at Alexander's death, claimed portions of his empire to the south and north of the Holy Land (and thus the terms "king of the South" and "king of the North").
But over the many centuries spanned by this long prophecy, the kings of the South and North, as well as the territories over which they ruled, changed. Alliances shifted. Kingdoms, empires and dynasties rose and fell. For lack of space, we won't go into those many details. You can find the basics covered in our free booklet The Middle East in Bible Prophecy—we hope you'll request or download your free copy.
As spelled out in this booklet, the end-time king of the North is the leader of a European-centered alliance of nations—a new emerging global superpower that soon will dominate the world stage. He and the end-time king of the South—again, apparently the leader of an alliance of Islamic nations—will come into major conflict.
A coming clash of civilizations
Notice Daniel's prophecy: "At the time of the end the king of the South shall attack him; and the king of the North shall come against him like a whirlwind, with chariots, horsemen, and with many ships; and he shall enter the countries, overwhelm them, and pass through" (verse 40).
This king of the South attacks the king of the North, which provokes a retaliatory invasion into the Middle East. "He shall also enter the Glorious Land [the Holy Land, generally modern-day Israel], and many countries shall be overthrown; but these shall escape from his hand: Edom, Moab, and the prominent people of Ammon" (verse 41).
Edom, Moab and Ammon are largely the people of modern-day Jordan, so it appears that the king of the North and his forces will occupy Israel yet stop short of Jordan.
But notice what also happens in this invasion by the king of the North: "He shall stretch out his hand against the countries, and the land of Egypt shall not escape. He shall have power over the treasures of gold and silver, and over all the precious things of Egypt; also the Libyans and Ethiopians shall follow at his heels" (verses 42-43).
Libya is immediately west of Egypt; Ethiopia is to the south. The king of the North clearly invades the region and ends up controlling Egypt, Libya and Ethiopia as a result of this retaliatory offensive—and perhaps more of North Africa will be involved.
How are we to make sense of these events?
Until the rise of militant Islam, none of this seemed remotely possible. But with the Iranian Revolution and the oft-stated goal of uniting believers under the banner of Islam, we now see the increasing likelihood of some sort of Islamic movement sweeping across the nations of the Middle East and uniting Muslims against the West.
To them, Europe remains a grave threat to Islam. Even today, Islamic radicals like Osama bin Laden repeatedly refer to Western influence in the Middle East as a continuation of the Crusades, which they view as an attempt to exterminate Islam that is still ongoing.
Other Muslim figures openly talk of capturing Europe for Islam. Many would prefer that this come through peaceful immigration and high birthrates (and Europe is wrestling with the problem of millions upon millions of Muslim immigrants and their burgeoning progeny). But they are prepared for the assimilation of Europe to come through war and jihad if necessary.
In today's current atmosphere—with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threatening the West and pursuing nuclear weapons, with Islamic fundamentalism and radicalism spreading, with conflict growing between Islam and the West, and with the possibility of secularized Arab governments falling to Islamists—suddenly this clash of civilizations and another open war in the Middle East doesn't sound so far-fetched at all.
Yes, we definitely need to keep a close eye on the Middle East. It's unclear how the current turmoil will affect Egypt. Perhaps peace and calm will win out temporarily. Or things could turn very bad very quickly.
Either way, even if it doesn't happen now, these recent events show just how volatile the situation is in many of these countries and how quickly circumstances could change at any time—perhaps leading into the very events foretold by Daniel under God's inspiration.
As Jesus Christ tells us in Luke 21:36, we are to diligently "watch therefore, and pray always[,] that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man." Let us make sure that we are so doing! GN