WASHINGTON—A few days ago in Beirut, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt switched his support from Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a symbol of pro-Western, anti-Syrian Sunnis, to Najib Mikati, a businessman supported by Hezbollah, because Mikati was willing to turn a blind eye to the evidence that the Shiite group assassinated Hariri’s father six years ago. The move brought down the government and placed Mikati in power. Jumblatt justified his decision with the argument that it was necessary to have stability at the price of justice.

I have met Jumblatt a couple of times in Lebanon and in Washington, and he always struck me as forthright regarding his country’s troubles. His statement should be taken at face value: He and a sizable chunk of Lebanese society have come to the troubling conclusion that peaceful coexistence is only possible by sacrificing justice.

I bring attention to this in the light of the tumultuous events in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Jordan and Algeria. What we are seeing belies the notion that sacrificing justice brings stability. This has been the policy of the West vis-a-vis the Middle East for decades. Rhetorical calls for democratic reform notwithstanding, the United States and Europe have backed and funded corrupt Arab dictatorships because they seemed a better rampart against the tidal waves of Islamic fundamentalism than any alternative.

Arab dictatorships, of course, achieved neither justice nor stability. Fundamentalism continued to grow. In a heavily rigged parliamentary election in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood achieved 20 percent of the seats in 2005. Many years earlier, in the more secularly inclined Tunisian society, the religious fanatics of the Nahda movement led by Rachid Ghannouchi officially obtained 17 percent of the vote the last time they were allowed to participate, although the real figure was probably higher. And Gaza’s first democratic elections were overwhelmingly won by Hamas. Not to speak of the strengthening of Islamic fundamentalism in Saudi Arabia, where no amount of repression has prevented various networks within the kingdom from providing funding as well as ideological and political support to anti-Western terrorists.

Beyond the Arab world, the trade-off between stability and justice has been equally illusory. A recent proof is Pervez Musharraf, who, together with Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, was the recipient of billions of dollars, weapons and training provided by the U.S. in the last decade. During Musharraf’s military regime, Islamic fundamentalism continued to expand in Pakistan and thwarted much of the effort of Pakistani institutions to combat both the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Meanwhile, news of the changes taking place in the new millennium was reaching millions of people, particularly the young, in the Arab world. The slow ascent of large numbers of Arabs into the lower middle class due to the effect of globalization, which those autocracies could not keep out entirely, was more momentous than outsiders realized. A generation of Arabs who clearly understood that the choice between stability and justice was false came into being.

They saw in frustration how the freest, most modern nations on Earth buttressed their dictators because calls for freedom in the Arab world sounded naive compared to the much more urgent concerns of the international order. But they knew better than anyone else how unreal the stability was because the apparent social acquiescence that decades of brutal repression had brought about was mostly owed to fear.

Americans and Europeans who really believed that the only choice in the Arab world was between lascivious sheiks and murderous generals on the one hand, and medieval weirdos on the other, have suddenly discovered that there are thousands—no, millions—of men and women who do not look all that different from Westerners and speak the civic and political language of their own democracies. “When people have their voice, they don’t need to explode themselves,” a 29-year-old demonstrator told The Washington Post.

The story of the West is that stability only came when a modicum of justice was achieved. The peaceful order was threatened, in these nations, every time a generation perceived that justice was somehow eroded in the name of stability. Should we be all that surprised that other parts of the world feel the same?