Spark could inflame the region

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 31, 2011

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.

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