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Gdansk, Beijing or Tehran? The hunt for parallels to the Cairo uprising.

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 6, 2011

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.

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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 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.


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