WASHINGTON - As the world watched nine days of largely peaceful demonstrations in Egypt degenerate into bedlam fueled by confrontational pro-government hoodlums wielding Molotov cocktails Wednesday, observers are tracking the regional contagion of popular, reform-driven uprisings and wondering whether they are enough to usher in real change.
"We're still in a moment where things hang in the balance," Chris Toensing, director of the Middle East Research and Information Project, told IPS. "But for the first time in my career studying the Middle East for the Arab world, this is the first time where people power is a significant political actor in its own right. In the calculus of regimes, it has to be taken seriously."
The message seems to be getting across. President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen announced Wednesday that he would step down before the end of his term in 2013. And on Tuesday, King Abdullah II of Jordan dismissed his government, while the Palestinian Authority pledged to hold new elections.
Last December, Mohamed Bouazizi - an unemployed, college- educated 26-year-old making ends meet by vending produce on Sidi Bouzid's dusty streets - set himself ablaze and became a catalyst for Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution, which climaxed with the collapse of dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
"There's not a single ruler in the Arab world that thinks, 'it can't happen to me,'" Shibley Telhami, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and Middle East expert, told IPS. "Every ruler is going to have to be more sensitive to their public's opinion than they have before."
Tunisia was the spark that ignited Egypt's flame, analysts say. "[One] thing we should not underestimate for a moment is that when Ben Ali fell, it broke the seal," Toensing said.
"People just didn't believe that things could change from people power, from below. It lifted a psychological barrier," he said.
One Big Powder Keg
For some, this points to a domino effect in the Arab world, evidenced by protests witnessed and planned in such countries as Algeria, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Rising food prices, high unemployment and years of repression have galvanised the youth - and in some places, whole populations - and pushed them into the streets with banners and bullhorns.
But despite the recent spate of promises for reform and announcements of band-aid appeasements - such as pledges to boost government-paid salaries and vows to expand food subsidies - observers are sceptical about these seemingly shallow concessions.
"It's like putting the iPod on the one song replay," Joshua Stacher, political scientist and Middle East scholar at Kent State University, told IPS. "It's old and boring and we've heard it before."
"There's a crisis of trust," Telhami explained. "There is no trust in promises. People want to see real change. When you remove one prime minister and [install] another, but still under the same rules of the game, it's not enough That's been a pattern and people know it and that's not what they're looking for.
Regarding Saleh's assurance that he would self-terminate his thus far 33 years in power, Stacher noted that he's made the same claim previously. "Is he scared now? Or is he just saying that to buy more time until the next election when he'll again say, 'oh, never mind?'"
Because of insignificant gains in livelihoods and unfulfilled promises like these, "There's not a single Arab state that's been able to win the trust of its citizens," Stacher said.
"This is a revolt against specific Arab leaders and governing elites who have implemented policies that have seen the majority of Arabs dehumanised, pauperised, victimised and marginalised by their own power structure," wrote respected Arab commentator Rami Khouri in the Beirut- based Daily Star Wednesday.
"But it is also a revolt against the tradition of major Western powers that created the modern Arab states and then fortified and maintained them as security states."
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If the current regional unrest leads to the disbanding of decades-old regimes and the departure of Western-backed heads of state, analysts say that U.S. influence in the Arab world could also be displaced.
While some see this is as a geopolitical crisis, others see it as an opportunity for Washington to make good on its rhetoric of democracy-promotion and espousal of universal rights.
"This is not a moment that U.S. policymakers should be afraid of," Stacher told IPS. "They need to redesign what their interests are in the region and come to some sort of conclusion that& sees Arab states as peer nations."
Next Chapter Remains Unwritten
It's not yet clear whether democracy will take hold when the dust settles if today's dictators are toppled.
Toensing noted similar moments in recent years when popular movements feigned to have pushed autocratic regimes to tipping points: Lebanon in the spring of 2005 and Iran in the summer of 2009. With the fervor that began in Tunisia seemingly spreading, will reform stick this time around?
"With this, the winter of 2011 the crucial difference is that things began in places that are typical of the region: Western-allied, autocratic, corrupt regimes with a similar relationship not only to U.S. geo-strategy but also to U.S. and Western backed neoliberal economic reforms," Toensing said.
"In most countries in the region that aren't oil rich& those are the things that most affect the daily lives of the people and those are the things that make them feel oppressed: the ever deepening police state and economic dislocation caused by privatisation," he explained.
Despite these resemblances, some analysts are also quick to point to the obvious variability in the Arab world and wonder whether Tunisia was a one-off. After all, Mubarak - and Saleh and Abdullah and Gaddafi and others - remain stubbornly stuck in their seats of longstanding power.
"No one expected this would happen in Tunisia. No one expected this is going to happen in Egypt," Telhami told IPS. "You cannot assume it's going to happen somewhere else Tunisia is not like Egypt, either. They're not identical."
"Small countries, enormous countries, oil-rich countries, countries where foreign communities outnumber citizens& obviously, there are different dynamics," he explained.
And then there are the structural variations on the theme of absolute power from the Maghreb to the Gulf - between those that call themselves republics and those that call themselves monarchies.
Even though "every country is different," Telhami noted, "The question is whether there is anger. And we know there's anger. The [disconnect] between leaders and their peoples have been increasing over the past decade"
"We have to be modest in our predictions. We have never seen uprisings of this type in this scale in the contemporary Middle East," he said. "Whether or not they spill over - in theory, they can; in practice, we don't know."
"The crowd has a hand in, but also it doesn't mean that they'll prevail," Toensing admitted. "We're still in early days I think. The fact that we don't know is in itself very good news because in the past it hasn't been so hard to predict."