By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 6, 2011; 12:19 AM
JERUSALEM - The speed with which Tunisia's popular uprising inspired Egyptian demonstrators to take to the streets suggested that a revolutionary wave could sweep the Middle East the way Eastern Europe's communist bloc crumbled.
But whether Middle Eastern governments will melt away like the Iron Curtain, or stand firm like the Chinese Communist Party after its crackdown in Tiananmen Square, remains far from certain.
The quick ouster of Tunisia's president fed expectations that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak could fall just as fast, but the crackdown on anti-government protesters and journalists in Egypt last week was a sobering reminder that regime change is rarely easy and the path of mass movements hard to predict.
"In the near term, I think it would be extremely naive to assume you're just going to see every Arab country becoming a democracy. This is not Central and Eastern Europe. The conditions are not ripe; the circumstances are more severe," said Larry Diamond, director of the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.
When Tunisians ousted their president last month, "people were looking at Solidarity," the Polish trade union whose actions eventually led to free elections, said Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, a specialist in Arab politics at Tel Aviv University's Dayan Center. Beginning with a strike by workers in 1980 at the Polish port of Gdansk, "the movement in the end brought down the whole house of cards," Maddy-Weitzman said. "We have no idea if that is going to happen" in the Middle East, he added.
In the hunt for parallels, there are many candidates: Will this end like Tiananmen Square, where military action was used to clear away a standing protest? Will Islamists hijack the current broad-based uprising, as they did in Iran in 1979? Will this, like Eastern Europe, be a leading edge of democratic and economic reform?
The events in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere have energized Arabs who have long sought a political voice and rattled regional leaders who have long felt secure.
In response, some rulers have moved to placate their populations: the Jordanian king fired his cabinet; the president of Yemen agreed not to seek reelection; the Algerian leader said he would cancel an emergency law; Kuwait's parliament is doling out money and 14 months of free food.
But even without those conciliatory steps, each country has its own reasons why replicating the Tunisian example would be difficult. Experts say monarchs in countries such as Morocco and Jordan, for example, still have special standing.
When he took the throne in 1999, Morocco's King Mohammed VI opened the political system, including to Islamist parties, making him a more popular figure domestically.
In Jordan, where only 400 protesters turned out on Friday, compared with 3,000 the week before, King Abdullah II is still seen by many as a national symbol and the only authority capable of holding together a patchwork state of groups and tribes, including a large population of Palestinians.
In Algeria, protests are planned for the coming days, but the political opposition isn't organized. A rich, oil-producing state, Algeria - like Kuwait - has money to fend off opposition.
"I would say Algeria doesn't have the social and political cohesion for a mass protest movement," Maddy-Weitzman said.
Saudi Arabia, a strong U.S. ally, was deeply concerned by what it perceived as the United States' abrupt abandonment of Mubarak in the midst of the demonstrations, officials in the region said. But unlike Egypt's narrow one-man rule, the Saudi kingdom is governed by a web of complex tribal alliances, with the ruling Saud family numbering in the thousands and deeply entrenched in the country's military, intelligence and other institutions. Periodic revolts by Saudi Arabia's Shiite minority in the oil-rich eastern provinces have been easily contained.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is Alawite, a minority Shiite sect, keeps a tight grip on the majority Sunni Muslim population. Activists were arrested after a Facebook appeal went out calling for a day of rage similar to the one that drew tens of thousands to Cairo's Tahrir Square. No one demonstrated on Friday.
It is not only the Syrian government's heavy hand that prevents demonstrations, experts say, but also savvy Syrian policymaking, which has sought to temper public discontent.
Unlike Mubarak, who bucked public opinion and maintained a strong alliance with the United States and Israel, "the Syrian regime knows that the people do not like them, so they will not adopt a foreign policy that is not popular with the masses," said Mouafac Harb, a Beirut-based Lebanese-American analyst of Middle Eastern politics.
Stanford University's Diamond predicts that what is most likely to transpire in the Middle East will be similar to what happened in sub-Saharan Africa after the fall of the Berlin Wall. South Africa's subsequent release in 1990 of imprisoned opposition leader Nelson Mandela and other events "catalyzed a wave of mass protests and collapse of authoritarian rule in a great number of sub-Saharan African states."
Yet the ultimate outcome was mixed, he says: Half emerged as electoral democracies, at least for a period, while others maintained authoritarian rule.
"You see the spark in Tunisia," Diamond said. "In the Middle East, some of these guys will fall, some of these regimes will hang on, but what's clear is the region will never be the same again."