The speed with which Tunisia's popular uprising inspired Egyptian demonstrators to take to the streets suggested that a revolutionary wave could sweep the West Asia, the way Eastern Europe's communist bloc crumbled. But whether Middle Eastern governments will melt away like the Iron Curtain, or stand firm like the Chinese Communist Party after its crackdown in Tiananmen Square, remains far from certain.
The quick ouster of Tunisia's president fed expectations that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak could fall just as fast, but the crackdown on anti-government protesters and journalists in Egypt last week was a sobering reminder that regime change is rarely easy and the path of mass movements hard to predict.
"In the near term, I think it would be extremely naive to assume you're just going to see every Arab country becoming a democracy. This is not Central and Eastern Europe. The conditions are not ripe; the circumstances are more severe,"said Larry Diamond, director of the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University. When Tunisians ousted their president last month, "people were looking at solidarity," the Polish trade union whose actions led to free elections, said Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, a specialist in Arab politics at Tel Aviv University. Beginning with a strike by workers in 1980 at the Polish port of Gdansk, "the movement in the end brought down the whole house of cards," Maddy-Weitzman said. "We have no idea if that is going to happen" in the Middle East, he added.
In the hunt for parallels, there are many candidates: Will this end like Tiananmen Square, where military action was used to clear away a standing protest? Will Islamists hijack the current broad-based uprising, as they did in Iran in 1979? Will this, like Eastern Europe, be a leading edge of democratic and economic reform?
(In Exclusive Partnership with The Washington Post)