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The scent may not spread

The jasmine revolution in Egypt is historic. But it may not affect the whole region.

india Updated: Feb 13, 2011 23:00 IST

Egypt's jasmine revolution has all the elements of a political fairy tale. Spontaneous popular protests that saw elderly and children on the streets. A day of heroism with anti-government protestors holding off determined attacks by armed bad guys. Finally, a despot who seemed destined to rule until the time he felt his son was ready to take over was toppled. And all this in 18 days. Unsurprisingly, this has proven so inspirational that the Tahrir Square revolt has had a ripple effect across the Arab world - and even triggered the odd protests in Africa and Europe.

Without detracting from the moment, it's useful to lower expectations regarding the jasmine effect. Egypt won't become a liberal democracy overnight. At best, it will begin a long and difficult journey towards creating, first, representative government and, second, an open society. The first goal is likely to be accomplished within months, as the constitution is amended to allow for free parliamentary and presidential elections. But expect it to come with one statutory warning: the Egyptian military is likely to remain autonomous. The military is wary of the country's Islamicist parties and will retain the right to intervene against them. The second goal is far more problematic. Genuine democracy is likely to result in the growth of conservative religious influence in Egypt. The hope: over a period of several years Egyptian voters will come to appreciate the benefits of secular principles, free expression, religious and social toleration. This is a slow process of popular self-education. It won't come quickly and may not come naturally.

The future of the jasmine revolution may also be more circumscribed. Let there be no doubt, a movement that's toppled the forever regimes of Tunisia and Egypt has already made history. But there are many barriers to the revolution spreading to other countries of the region. The foremost reason is the petroleum-rich Arab countries, which, horrified at the idea of democracy, are doling out money to defuse the economic problems that have driven poorer Arabs into the streets. Second, the militaries of countries like Syria, Yemen and Algeria are far less encumbered by concerns about shooting their own people. People's power succeeds best if they are sympathetic soldiers. The next act is less about revolt and more about reform. Egypt and Tunisia now have the political and economic evolution, gradual and non-violent, that will make them showpieces for the benefits of democracy. If they succeed in the coming years they will ensure that jasmine will permanently mark the Arab environment.