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Monday April 4, 2011 2:01 PM (EST+7)
ANALYSIS: Arab revolts set to transform Middle East

Read more: Arab revolts, protests, demonstrations, Arabs, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, Oman, Bahrain, Rashid Khalidi

BEIRUT, April 3 (Alistair Lyon/Reuters) - The astonishing popular protests against Arab autocrats that have churned the region for three months are the authentic birth pangs of a new Middle East.

Israel's American-backed attempts to bomb Hezbollah and south Lebanon into submission in 2006 did not change the region, as Condoleezza Rice predicted it would.

Nor did the US-led invasion of Iraq three years earlier, which former President George W. Bush touted as introducing democracy to the Arab world, have much effect.

The change now is coming from within -- and from below.

Ordinary people taking to the streets swept away the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia. The leaders of Libya and Yemen are fighting for survival.

Arab leaders almost everywhere else are trying to fend off real or potential challenges with a mix of repression and concessions.

The rulers are running scared, with good reason -- the people have terrified them, said Rashid Khalidi, professor of Arab studies at Columbia University in New York. The specter of popular power haunts the dictators and monarchs.

The region's mostly Muslim citizens are at last proving they are no exception to the democratic trends that have transformed eastern Europe, Latin America and much of Africa and Asia in recent decades.

Live media coverage has thrust protests and violence in one Arab city into Arab homes everywhere. Witness accounts ping from cell phones to YouTube and Facebook.

The pro-democracy movement will reshape the Arab world as powerfully as the ideologies of Arab nationalism, socialism, communism and political Islam in the last 150 years, argues Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut.

It is a sea change, he said. The change is profound. It hits people's identities, their core.

Islam is still the most powerful current, but this paradigm has in a way superseded and absorbed it, creating the democratic, pluralist, human rights value system as the dominant

But ousting authoritarian rulers is one thing, installing stable systems of representative government quite another.

Success will depend partly on how well elected governments handle the social problems and economic hardships which, along with a yearning for freedom and dignity, have fueled unrest from Algeria to Oman.

Some Arab rulers will ride out the storm - the monarchies seem slightly less vulnerable than the republics so far.

The question, three months on from the first protests in Tunisia, is what happens next?


The answer will differ from country to country.

Broadly speaking, Arab leaders have responded in three ways to the pent-up frustrations that have burst into street protests.

Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia's Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali bowed to people power, grudgingly stepping down after their generals withdrew support and showed them the door.

Others, most especially countries in the Gulf, have tried to pre-empt protests by offering bribes, often combined with promises of political reform.

Finally, a few have resorted to naked force to cling to power.

Muammar Gaddafi, who has ruled Libya since 1969, and whose bloody crackdown on protests helped trigger an armed revolt, occupies the bloodiest end of the spectrum. But Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Syria and Yemen have also ungloved iron fists against protesters not content with economic handouts.

In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh looks doomed as even his own clan has turned against him.

But Saudi Arabia has made clear it will not tolerate dissent at home or serious challenges to Sunni rule in other Gulf countries, particularly in Shi'ite-majority Bahrain where Riyadh has sent 1,000 troops to help suppress the island's worst unrest
since the 1990s.

Violent change in societies already split on ethnic or sectarian lines is unlikely to foster democracy. In countries such as Bahrain, Libya, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, the future may be greater fragmentation much as in Lebanon and Iraq.






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