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What rulers overlook

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Goran Tomasevic/Reuters/File

(Read caption) A woman walks at Karnak Temple in Luxor, southern Egypt.

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Empathy is the ability to imagine yourself as another person. Specialists say most children express empathy by age 4 but probably feel it much earlier. Behavioral research shows that most animals – dolphins, primates, rodents – empathize when a family member is in pain.

When empathy is absent, cruelty reigns, selfishness is celebrated, majorities oppress minorities. When present, empathy recognizes that other people’s concerns are valid, encourages mercy in victory, and tempers extremism. Empathy is the crucial factor in a healthy society; it undergirds moderation – but only if it goes beyond the surge of pity that most people feel when someone else is in distress. Empathy requires practical implementation.

You can see the need for empathy all over the world – from politically polarized Washington, D.C., where President Obama has talked of an “empathy deficit,” to austerity-constrained Southern Europe, where the brilliant promise of young people is clouded by debt and stagnation. But the need for empathy is perhaps most vividly on display in the Middle East.

The unprecedented protests, revolutions, and uprisings of the past two years began, in fact, with a massive upswelling of empathy. Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor in Tunisia, felt so desperate that he set himself on fire. Millions of people in the Arab world saw their own voiceless, oppressed condition in Mr. Bouazizi’s plight. The tumult that followed began with a we’re-all-in-it-together spirit. Anything but the status quo would be better, most felt. Why not freedom? Why not democracy?

But two years on, the spirit of the Arab Spring has been overtaken by anger, violence, and suspicion. Opinion polls continue to show that large majorities throughout the Middle East say they want democracy. But that is where consensus ends, especially in Egypt. Some people want Western-style pluralism; some crave order; some support democracy only if it gives a central place to Islam; and some are no longer sure they want an Egypt at all.

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