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Egypt's historic moment spurs new hope in Arab world

By Liz Sly
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 11, 2011; 5:43 PM

BAGHDAD - From the halls of power across the Arab world came a stunned silence. In the living rooms of ordinary people watching history unfold live on television there was wonder, amazement and a renewed sense of hope and possibility.

And from Israel, which may also be profoundly affected by the fall from power of its closest Arab ally, came indications of a deep sense of unease.

If anyone had doubted the transformational potential of the revolt in tiny Tunisia that overthrew a ruler of marginal significance on Jan. 14, here was proof.

Just four weeks later, Hosni Mubarak, the president of Egypt, the region's elder statesman and the embodiment of Arab authoritarianism for a generation, had been forced to step down under pressure from his own people, an event as momentous for the Arab world as it is for Egyptians.

Though the circumstances of Mubarak's departure and the assumption of power by the military raised troubling new questions, for most Arabs the details didn't matter. Egypt had rapidly followed Tunisia down the path of dissent and revolt, and the only question on everyone's minds was which of the Middle East's autocrats would be next in line.

In Beirut, Lebanese fired Kalashnikovs in the air and set off fireworks in celebration at the news, in the West Bank town of Ramallah, Palestinians honked their horns and cheered, and in Gaza, Hamas police officers distributed candies to citizens.

"A lot of other dictators were waiting to see if Mubarak goes or stays, and if he stayed it would have given them added strength to resist the demands of their people," said Jordanian political analyst Labib Kamhawi. "Now we will see accelerated demands for political reform and people will be more blunt in their demands."

"Egypt is the compass, the heart of the Arab world, the place where things start and end," he added. "So Arab regimes are very unhappy and feel that their moment is approaching."

Many regimes are already rushing to offer concessions to their citizens intended to appease unrest or deflect the threat of revolt. In Bahrain, home of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, the king on Friday announced gifts of $2,700 for every family, as opposition groups stepped up calls for a day of protest on Monday.

Syrian authorities this week lifted bans on Facebook and Twitter. Jordan's King Abdullah has replaced his cabinet in response to demonstrations there. Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh pledged last week not to seek reelection in 2013, but several hundred protesters took to the streets in southern Yemen on Friday to demand secession from the north.

Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has promised to lift his country's 19-year old state of emergency, which gave the military broad powers to battle Islamist insurgents but also to suppress dissent. There have been no reports of demonstrations in Saudi Arabia, but a campaign calling for constitutional reforms is gathering pace on Facebook.

In Iraq, which has witnessed a surge of small protests in recent days, government officials have raced to offer to reduce their salaries, starting with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, though his spokesman has backed away from a reported promise that he would not seek a third term in office.

"This will add enthusiasm to the Iraqi people's demands for reform,'' said Saif al-Bahadilili, 24, an Iraqi student who earlier in the day led chants for reform at a small demonstration in Baghdad's own Tahrir Square that was clearly inspired by the protests in Egypt.

Though Iraq has an elected government, "this is a warning that any person who acts as a tyrant in his position will suffer the same fate as Hosni Mubarak," he said.

Indeed, it may now be too late to quell the clamor for change gathering momentum across the Arab world, said Hilal Khashan, a political scientist at the American University of Beirut.

"There's no turning back, absolutely not," he said. "If the Arab leaders are to respond in a meaningful way they will have to quit, and since they don't intend to quit they will put up a fight. If they introduce democracy that means their ouster, so they're damned if they act and damned if they don't act.''

Israeli officials could not be reached for comment because of the onset of the Jewish Sabbath, but Israel's former ambassador to Egypt reflected Israeli concerns about the departure of the country's closest Arab ally in comments to Israel TV quoted by the Associated Press.

"We have a tough period ahead of us," Zvi Mazel was reported to have said. "Iran and Turkey will consolidate positions against us. Forget about the former Egypt. Now it's a completely new reality, and it won't be easy.''

Correspondent Janine Zacharia in Jerusalem and special correspondents Ali Qeis in Baghdad, Islam Abdelkarim in Gaza City and Sufian Taha in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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