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Mideast upheaval: the power of collective courage

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AP Photo/Kevin Frayer

(Read caption) Libyan men hold the former royal flag as they drive past a demonstration against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi in Benghazi, in eastern Libya.

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What has made 2011's democratic uprisings succeed where others fizzled?

FIrst, conditions seem to be right. In many countries, steady improvements in education have contributed to the growth of a middle class tired of being dictated to. Technology -- especially the Internet -- has given people in once closed societies a way to compare their lives with others and to communicate outside of state-controlled media. Economics, history, and religion contribute as well.

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But the secret ingredient is collective courage. When dissidents speak up, they know they risk being clamped in jail. The game-changer is when thousands of regular people all decide to become dissidents at the same time. If the police and military see familiar faces in a crowd of countrymen, they are less likely to shoot. The power of the peaceful protest turned the tide in Tunisia and Egypt.

That pattern has worked in Libya up to a point. Elements of the Libyan military have joined the opposition. But though he is isolated by the world and cornered in Tripoli, Muammar Qaddafi is defended by powerful private army.

Even that army, however, is made up of individuals whose thinking may change as they realize the hopelessness of Qaddafi's endgame.