Spark could inflame the region

By Liz Sly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 31, 2011; A01

BAGHDAD - In the middle of Sunday afternoon, most television screens across the Middle East suddenly went blank.

The Arabic service of the celebrated al-Jazeera network, whose live coverage of the upheaval in Egypt had transfixed the region for days, had been blocked by the teetering Egyptian regime, forcing viewers to switch to one of the multiple other channels covering the protests, albeit none with quite so much breadth, depth and passion as al-Jazeera.

In any case, it may already be too late to stem the tide of revolutionary fervor unleashed by the scenes of turmoil - broadcast from Egypt across the one part of the world that had remained stubbornly immune to the surge of democratization that swept Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa in the 1980s and '90s.

"This is going to be one big regional wave," said Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at American University of Beirut. "After Egypt, wait a couple of days . . . and you will see that the trend is unstoppable."

The toppling of Tunisia's dictatorial regime three weeks earlier may have provided the inspiration, the hint of possibility, to a region that has long yearned for change but seemed powerless to bring it about.

But this latest uprising is taking place in Cairo, the political, cultural and intellectual capital of the Arab world. This is the city that gave the region belly dancing, soap operas, its most beloved singers, the Arab League and the most influential institute of Sunni Islamic learning in the world, al-Azhar University.

It has also endowed the region with its most potent revolutions.

The last time Egypt had a revolt was back in 1952, and it changed the course of history. The young army officer who led the coup that overthrew Egypt's monarchy was Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose pan-Arab nationalist ideals inspired a generation of revolutionary leaders from Moammar Gaddafi in Libya to Saddam Hussein in Iraq, along with a string of violently destabilizing coups and two Arab-Israeli wars.

This Egyptian revolution, though dramatically different, has the potential to be just as transformational.

Already, activists on Twitter are furiously tweeting the dates of the next putative uprisings: Sudan on Jan. 30, Yemen on Feb. 3, Syria on Feb. 5, Algeria on Feb. 12. "Arab Revolution Timetable," say the tweets hurtling among the region's new generation of cyberspace revolutionaries.

Ascertaining the assertions' credibility is impossible, and most of those countries have stricter controls on the Internet and social media than Egypt, where an impromptu network of mostly middle-class and secular agitators used Facebook and Twitter to first bring people out onto the streets of Egypt's cities Tuesday.

But there are already signs that the spark ignited by Tunisia and inflamed by Egypt is spreading. Hundreds of student protesters demonstrated in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, on Sunday to demand that the government resign, prompting a fierce response from armed riot police who fired tear gas and beat and arrested demonstrators.

Analysts in the region are divided only in their predictions as to where trouble will surface next.

Most vulnerable, said Fares Braizat of the Qatar-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, are the region's republics, from Algeria to Yemen, Sudan, Syria and Libya, whose dictatorial regimes differ from the one in Egypt only in the degree to which they repress their people, and their allegiance or otherwise to the United States.

The traditional monarchies, such as Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, derive legitimacy from their tribal roots and hereditary religious ties, leaving them less susceptible to calls for outright regime change. But demands for political reforms that would temper the power of kings and create constitutional monarchies along the lines of those that thrive in Europe are likely to escalate, Braizat said.

The oil-rich emirates of the Arabian Peninsula, whose citizens enjoy some of the highest per capita incomes in the world, do not confront the same challenges as Tunisia and Egypt, where swelling populations and rising unemployment have clashed headlong with the corrupt exclusivity and lavish lifestyles of a tiny ruling elite.

Iraq and Lebanon, with their deep sectarian divides and fragile democratic systems, present yet another set of challenges, unlikely to be affected dramatically by the Egyptian turmoil.

"Iraq is different," said Mufeed al-Jazairi, a member of Iraq's Communist Party who joined a small group of demonstrators in Baghdad's Firdaus Square on Sunday in support of the protests in Egypt.

Also on Sunday, thousands of Tunisians turned out to greet the return of Islamist leader Rachid Ennahda, who had spent the past 22 years in exile. It was the biggest showing by long-repressed Islamists in the country for years, the Associated Press reported, raising one of the many questions spawned by this burgeoning democratic revolution - about the role that Islamists will play.

Yet while few dispute that the entire region is hurtling in directions that cannot be foretold, for most Arabs that is a cause for hope, not concern, said Labib Kamhawi, a political analyst based in Jordan's capital, Amman.

"Nothing could be worse than what we are used to having until now," he said. "We hit the bottom and people became desperate, until Tunisia taught us that change is possible, and how to go about it."

Special correspondent Ali Qeis in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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