Middle East after Hosni Mubarak: impact of a revolution

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Egyptians set off fireworks in Tahrir Square, in Cairo, Egypt, 11 February 2011
Image caption,
Egyptian protesters celebrated the news of President Mubarak's resignation with fireworks, dancing, drumming and text messaging

How wrong we were.

When the unrest began in Tunisia, most experts (myself included) said the country's long-time strongman, President Ben Ali, would crush it and survive.

When he abruptly fled the country and unrest spread to Egypt, most experts (myself included) said Egypt was not Tunisia and that the country's long-time strongman, Hosni Mubarak, would crush it and survive.

The last few weeks have turned every expectation on its head and led even the most seasoned observers to wonder where the region is heading.

So here are some thoughts, from a chastened observer, about the likely fall-out.

First, President Mubarak's resignation and his departure from Cairo do not mean that the Egyptian crisis is moving towards an early resolution.

On the contrary, Mr Mubarak has simply dumped his dilemmas into the lap of the military top brass.

Whether they can do a better job of dealing with them than he did - and whether the military can even retain its own cohesion - are far from certain.

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The success of 'people power' in Egypt has significance for the wider region

People power

Second, the success of 'people power' in Egypt is far more significant for Arabs everywhere than its success in Tunisia.

Egypt is the biggest and most powerful Arab state. Mr Mubarak had ruled it for three decades.

The Egyptian example has already electrified public opinion throughout a region where a similar set of ills - autocracy, corruption, unemployment, the dignity deficit - prevail.

Autocrats whose security services are smaller and weaker than Egypt's are more vulnerable to the chill wind of popular anger.

Those with the money to buy off dissent are already trying to do so. Poorer states, such as Jordan and Yemen, will have to borrow in order to do so.

Third, the impact of the crisis on regional economies - in such obvious areas as oil prices, tourism, the ability to attract foreign investment - has already been severe.

Fourth, the fall of Mubarak will affect a host of regional issues - the Arab-Israeli peace process, the growing influence of Iran, the battle against Muslim extremism - in ways that are hard, if not impossible, to predict.

Fears of Islamic revolutions everywhere are misplaced. Most of the current dissent seems driven by nationalist rather than religious sentiment.

In Egypt and elsewhere, the Islamists are jumping on a bandwagon others have set in motion.

Image caption,
There has been criticism of the US response to Egypt's crisis

At the same time, fears that the crisis tilts the regional balance of power in favour of Iran are, for similar reasons, premature. Iran is watching these tumultuous events, not driving them.

Lessons for the West

Finally, Western governments are left with policy dilemmas for which there are, in the short run, no solutions.

The Obama administration's handling of the Egypt crisis has been inept. The European Union has scarcely fared much better.

But even if their response had been sure-footed, the underlying conundrum would have been the same.

The West has, for decades, made stability a higher priority than democracy and human rights.

Some urgent re-thinking is now under way, as policymakers scramble to learn the right lessons.

The other painful lesson for Western powers is how little influence they have, even in countries to which they give generous aid.

Money does not buy you love. Nor, when the chips are down, does it enable you to save a close ally from the wrath of the people.

Roger Hardy is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Washington DC.