Skip to main content

The domino effect of Arab unrest

Click to play
Protesters rally in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Tuesday. Tens of thousands gathered to demand that President Mubarak step down.
  • Parag Khanna: "The triumph of people power over the inertia of political power"
  • Shadi Hamid: "Cabinet reshuffles are business as usual for Jordan," not so significant
  • M. Nazif Shahrani: Arabs demanding "liberation from being treated as slaves and subjects"
  • Isobel Coleman: If reforms come, "expect Islam to play a larger role in government"
  • Blake Hounshell: Popular comedy "Terrorism and Kebab" revealed, predicted this unrest

(CNN) -- Bowing to the massive pressure of demonstrators, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak said Tuesday he will step down in September after 30 years in power. King Abdullah II dismissed his government in Jordan as calls for reform swept across North Africa and the Middle East. Analysts offer their views on what this wave of unrest means for the region and the world.

Parag Khanna, author of "How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance" and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation:

The Arab upheaval, which has been compared to the 1989 collapse of the Berlin Wall, challenges not only the regimes that are falling, but also more fundamentally the entire Arab order that has held since the decolonization of three generations ago. We are witnessing the triumph of people power over the inertia of political power.

Overpopulation and corruption are the twin scourges of almost all post-colonial countries across Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan -- and other Arab societies like Morocco, Libya, Yemen, and Syria -- are all pressed to manage global economic forces and channel them into benefits such as jobs and welfare for their citizens. Even the monarchies like Jordan and Morocco won't be considered legitimate unless they deliver the goods.

A new governance model will emerge from the wreckage of these regimes. Presidential or executive powers will be curtailed. Strongman states will diminish. Cronyism and clan-based governance will be replaced by more technocratic leadership that will answer to the people as well as to global markets. The old Arabism of anti-colonial rhetoric and failed Sunni unity will be replaced by a new Arabism led by Qatar's Al Jazeera, Lebanese bloggers, and Dubai-best investors.

It is their entrepreneurship, know-how, and capital which are re-shaping the vast young Arab generation's outlook on the world. This is the kind of fresh, young secular Arabism the West should get behind --liberating them from the squeeze between autocrats and would-be theocrats. A domino effect doesn't have to be a bad thing. Replacing autocracy with democracy and ideology with pragmatism would be a big step forward for much of the Arab world. We should welcome this ushering in of a new era.

Ibrahim Sharqieh, deputy director of Brookings Doha Center and Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy:

Day of violence in Egypt
Chaos in Tahrir Square
Digging up bricks to use as weapons
CNN reporter's narrow escape

Today, all Arabs are asking the same question: after Tunisia and Egypt, who is next? There are, however, many differences between these two countries as well as between them and the rest of the Arab world.

In each country, there are certain characteristics that may make replicating the uprising less likely. Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, Jordan is a kingdom; Syria is a security controlled state, Yemen is a tribal society, and Sudan is ethnically divided.

Despite all these structural differences, there is one thing that unites them all. It is the power of successful revolt that inspires all of them to consider launching their own uprisings. This power is stimulating the emergence of a "can do" attitude in the Arab world, which is breaking the barrier of fear that has long suppressed popular expression.

Every Arab citizen is now reflecting upon the successes of Egypt and Tunisia and considering their shortfalls.

The leaders, too, are learning from the successes of Tunisia and Egypt. The strong lesson they have learned is that once people take to the streets, returning to the status quo becomes highly unlikely. Arab autocrats should learn the lesson: Preemptive and serious political reform is the only real means for survival.

Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution:

Facing mounting protests, King Abdullah of Jordan sacked his government and appointed a new prime minister. Observers should not treat this as a breakthrough, as some already are.

Cabinet reshuffles are business as usual for Jordan, which goes through governments at a fairly rapid clip. In any case, the person of the prime minister does not matter as much as people think. The one with the final decision-making authority is the king. To the extent that Jordan is faltering, both economically and politically, the responsibility lies not with the prime minister but with the monarch.

In Egypt and Tunisia, we saw a similar regime strategy: half-measures rather than fundamental reforms that address protesters' grievances. It didn't work there and is likely to fall flat in Jordan as well.

More problematically, the new prime minister is a man named Marouf al-Bakhit, a former army general. And the fact that King Abdullah chose to appoint him sends worrying signals. Bakhit is a military man who, if anything, is known for an aversion to democratic reform. During his previous stint as prime minister from 2005-7, he launched a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, the major opposition group in the country. And in November 2007, he oversaw one of the most fraudulent elections in Jordan's history.

In other words, Jordan is still stuck.

Isobel Coleman, author of "Paradise Beneath Her Feet" and a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York:

The specter of Islamism filling the power vacuum left by popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan has become a concern to many in the West. Though this is certainly a possibility, so far the demonstrations have been led by young people demanding greater political participation and economic opportunity.

They represent a broad coalition focused primarily on democratic aims, and motivated in large part by a stark gap between rising expectations and reality: Recent economic growth has too often failed to trickle down to the working poor. In Tunisia and Egypt, as much as 30 percent of university graduates are unemployed.

If more democratic political systems do emerge from this unrest, however, expect Islam to play a larger role in government. Indeed, youth across the region increasingly look to Turkey as a political model to emulate, and local Islamist parties are poised to take advantage of greater political freedoms.

In Tunisia, Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the formerly banned Nahda party, returned this week from 20 years' exile in London. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has played an increasingly assertive role, and expects to be included in any transition process. In Jordan, where the Muslim Brotherhood is not banned and already has its own political party, leader Hammam Saeed has been actively calling for Arabs to topple U.S.-backed leaders throughout the region.

Although strategic interests such as the Suez would not necessarily be jeopardized by a more Islamist Middle East, new regimes with stronger Islamic elements would likely be less cooperative on issues from counterterrorism to the peace process.

M. Nazif Shahrani, chairman of the Department of Near Eastern languages and Cultures, and professor of Anthropology, Central Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Indiana University-Bloomington:

The Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia sparked by the self-immolation of a young street vendor brought the regime of the dictator Zine El Abidin Ben Ali down. Now the revolution has spread across the region, unleashing the anger and frustration of millions who have suffered silently for decades across the Middle East. The few who had dared to take up arms against the dictators were at first dismissed as terrorists by the dictators and their patrons.

Now, the masses in the Arab streets -- in Tunis, Cairo, Alexandria, Sana'a, Amman, etc. -- have come out to peacefully and persistently demand their liberation from being treated as mere slaves and subjects, and not citizens, by the few corrupt power elites with access to weapons, military and political backing from the West.

This citizen-servitude during the past decades has been justified by dictators and their Western backers in the name of maintaining political stability. But these so-called stable regimes are responsible for the poverty, unemployment and poor living conditions of their people, due to corruption, cronyism and oppression by the undemocratic regimes.

Jordan's king orders reform
On the ground in Tahrir Square
'Millions' march for a new Egypt
Zakaria: Obama has 'leverage' in Egypt

The educated but unemployed youth of the Arab world are fed up with these regimes and their backers. These regimes cannot be reformed, and the people on the Arab streets demand that they must go and make way for popular democratic governance systems which can bring real stability to the region.

It is time for the West to stop supporting dictatorships and start listening to the legitimate and much delayed demands of the Arab public for real and popular democracy in the Middle East and beyond.

Blake Hounshell, managing editor of Foreign Policy:

In "Al Irhab wal Kabab" -- "Terrorism and Kebab" -- the omnipresent Egyptian comedic actor Adel Imam plays a man who visits the Mugamma, the hulking government building overlooking Cairo's Liberation Square. The Mugamma symbolizes everything the Egyptian state has become: bloated, inefficient, uncaring, and deeply corrupt.

Imam's character, Ahmed, has a simple request: Can you transfer my children's school? As his fellow citizens aimlessly wander the hallways in search of assistance, he gets the runaround from one bureaucrat after another. Finally, exasperated, Ahmed gets into a scuffle with one official and, in the ensuing melee, grabs a rifle from a bewildered guard and fires it in the air. Seizing the moment, he decides to take the entire building hostage. Asked to list his demands, he orders kebabs for everyone -- meat being a rare treat for Egypt's impoverished masses.

The 1992 film was a smash hit, and ranks among the most popular Egyptian films of all time. For all its slapstick silliness, it resonated deeply with a population that, even then, was exhausted after decades of failed experiments in socialism and half-hearted liberalization.

Eighteen years later, Egyptians -- or Arabs, for that matter -- aren't going to be satisfied simply by having their basic economic needs met. As the crowds gathering in Cairo's Tahrir Square and throughout the Arab world are showing, they will accept nothing less than wholesale change -- and are risking their lives to get it.

Julie Taylor, a Middle East specialist who lived in Egypt for five years, is a political scientist at the RAND Corp.:

There is no clear political party or leader ready to step in, if the regime in Egypt falls. However, this protest is not without leadership; it is spearheaded by a large network of Egyptian human rights groups and other citizens.

They have long challenged the Mubarak regime on humanitarian issues as greater independence of the judiciary, protections for minorities, and maintenance of stated protections found in the Egyptian constitution.

Activists in these groups have been trained in nonviolent civic protest tactics. They have networked with democratic activists in other countries for four years or more. The Bush and Obama administrations have followed their activities. Although the protesters make up a disembodied movement, many of their coordinators are known to the U.S. administration. They are the ones handing out water and organizing successive protests.

When ElBaradei, the Nobel Laureate and a leading critic of the government, came to Egypt, he met with the main network of civil society leaders to determine if there was support for him. It is this network that is hoisting him to the fore. This network remains highly meaningful.

In countries such as Jordan and Morocco, political reform would not require the removal of the monarchy, because these countries could evolve into constitutional monarchies in which the monarch remains as a figurehead. This makes political reform less threatening and more possible. In such cases, the monarch is more likely to be open to political change. This is not an option in republics such as Libya, Yemen, and Syria.

The opinions expressed in these commentaries are solely those of the writers.

Part of complete coverage on
'Sons of Mubarak' in plea for respect
Pro-Mubarak supporters believe Egypt's former president is innocent of charges of corruption and killing protesters.
Timeline of the conflict in Libya
Fighting in Libya started with anti-government demonstrations in February and escalated into a nationwide civil war.
Who are these rebels?
After months of seeming stalemate, Libyan rebels declared they were moving in on Tripoli. But who are they?
Why NATO's Libya mission has shifted
Six months and more than 17,000 air sorties after it began, NATO's Operation Unified Protector in the skies over Libya grinds on.
Interactive map: Arab unrest
Click on countries in CNN's interactive map to see the roots of their unrest and where things stand today.
Send your videos, stories
Are you in the Middle East or North Africa? Send iReport your images. Don't do anything that could put you at risk.
Libya through Gadhafi's keyhole
Behind the official smiles for the cameras some people in Libya's capital are waiting for the rebels, reports CNN's Ivan Watson.
How Arab youth found its voice
Tunisia's Mohamed Bouazizi not only ignited a series of revolts but heralded the first appearance of Arab youth on the stage of modern history.