Friday, February 11, 2011

Egypt's historic moment spurs new hope in Arab world

By Liz Sly
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 11, 2011; 1:32 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.

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.

"The will of the people prevailed. They managed to topple two dictators in less than a month," said Fares Braizat of the Arab Center for Research and Policy studies in Qatar. "The lesson is that when people take matters into their own hands, they can do it. We have discovered people's power, and now it is changing the game in the region."

The circumstances of Mubarak's departure and the assumption of power by the army raised as many questions as they answered, with many in Egypt and beyond expressing concern that the transition of power amounted to little more than a military coup that will not satisfy the protesters' demands for genuine democratic reforms.

But for most Arabs glued to their TV screens, as they have been throughout the past 18 days of demonstrations in Egypt, 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?

"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 have already rushed to offer concessions to their citizens intended to appease unrest or deflect the threat of revolt. 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.

Syrian authorities this week lifted bans on Facebook and Twitter and had earlier announced new social welfare programs for government workers and new fuel subsidies.

Jordan's King Abdullah has fired his cabinet and appointed a new one in response to demonstrations there. In Iraq, whose fragile democracy is by no means immune to calls for change and reform, government officials have raced to volunteer for reduced salaries, starting with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who announced last week that he would accept a 50 percent pay cut.

"This will add enthusiasm to the Iraqi people's demands for reform, and it is living proof that tyrants in all countries will have their day," said Saif al-Bahadilili, 24, an Iraqi economics student who earlier in the day led chants for reform among a small group of protesters at a 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 might 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, who predicts that the turmoil that has engulfed Cairo for the past two weeks will soon erupt in other Arab states.

"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."

He added: "If they introduce democracy, that means their ouster, so they're damned if they act and damned if they don't act."

Special correspondent Ali Qeis contributed to this report.

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