The warning from the Obama administration's top diplomat came amid increased signs of a backslide in the so-called Arab Spring, as Moammar Gadhafi persists with a bloody war against Libyan rebels and leaders from Yemen to Syria to Bahrain violently resist the calls from their people for a democratic transformation. Even in Egypt and Tunisia, where revolutions successfully chased out presidents who ruled for a combined 54 years, reform processes are at risk.
Speaking at the annual U.S.-Islamic World Forum, Clinton said this was the first real chance in decades for fundamental change in the region.
"Will the people and leaders of the Middle East and North Africa pursue a new, more inclusive approach to solving the region's persistent political, economic and social challenges?" Clinton asked. "Will they consolidate the progress of recent weeks and address long-denied aspirations for dignity and opportunity? Or, when we meet at this forum in one year or five years or 10, will we have seen the prospects for reform fade and remember this moment as just a mirage in the desert?"
The speech was in many ways a sequel to one she gave in Doha, Qatar, in January, when she warned Arab governments that they risked "sinking into the sand" if they did not meet the needs of their people. A day later, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled his country amid mass protests demanding his ouster. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak stepped down under similar pressure a month later.
Clinton didn't answer the fundamental question she posed: Will the unrest that has spread across the Arab world produce truly free societies with economic opportunities for their people, or leave corrupt and repressive systems in place?
She stressed that much has already been accomplished, with protest movements shattering the myth that Arabs don't share the same aspirations for freedom, dignity and opportunity, or that change could only come through violence. The use of Facebook, Twitter and other social media networks has helped mobilize younger citizens, who are increasingly connected, organized and frustrated – and unwilling to be silenced by tanks and missiles.
"Changing leaders alone will not be enough to satisfy them," Clinton said.
She said real change in Egypt and Tunisia demands political parties and civil society campaigns, and the protesters who brought down their governments need to combine their passion with the practical work of politics. At the same time, she said, transitional authorities must be inclusive, respect rights such as free assembly and provide basic security on the streets. Corruption needs to be rooted out, martial law eliminated, independent judicial systems established and fair elections held, she said.