On Monday, the situation in Egypt appeared to be moving away from public unrest and towards the state reasserting itself after the forced resignation of the president from office. Elsewhere in other Arab states such as Algeria and Bahrain, protests appeared to be picking up steam. The unrest has not been limited to Arab states either, with protests striking several Iranian cities Feb. 14.
All of these developments are fueling the belief that the region is in the grip of a domino effect. According to popular perception, the ouster of the Tunisian and Egyptian presidents has emboldened the masses in autocratic states throughout the region to rise up against their governments. The expectation is that the process under way in the Middle East is likely leading toward a democratization of the region. Some genuinely believe that to be the case. Others wish to see it happen. And by this point some, including many media observers, are unable to distinguish between the two.
While the focus today is on which other states could go the way of Tunisia and Egypt, the nature of the change that has taken place in those two countries is not well understood. It is true that the presidents in both countries have been forced out of power. The regimes in both states, however, remain intact and are in the process of making sure that any concessions to the masses will not lead to a complete overthrow of the system. If democratization remains elusive in the two countries that have seen their apex leaders — both of which ruled for decades — fall from power, then what is to be expected from other places where protests are occurring? The answer is no more uniform than the causes of the unrest in each respective country. Furthermore, the extent to which a domino effect is taking place is limited to the fact that people in several different countries are being inspired by what they saw happen in Tunis and Cairo, and very little else.
“While the focus today is on which other states could go the way of Tunisia and Egypt, the nature of the change that has taken place in those two countries is not well understood.”
Protesters in Algeria are holding demonstrations in the hope that they can force economic and political reforms from the government. In Bahrain, certain groups from within the Persian Gulf island kingdom’s Shia majority, long denied a say in political affairs, are agitating for a more democratic system than the current one ruled by a Sunni monarchy. In Iran, the Green Movement, which failed to bring down the clerical regime in 2009, is hoping it can capitalize on what is happening in the Arab countries to revitalize itself.
While the expression of all these groups has come in the form of protests, the grievances and goals of each are far from alike. Likewise, the method of dealing with the unrest by each regime is likely to be just as diverse, with some like Bahrain attempting to use the purse to quiet the protesters, and others — Tehran, for example — more likely to turn to the truncheon.
Though no other states appear close to the precipice right now, even if a leader is ousted, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the system they headed will be gone too. After all, in the two states now put forward as models by opposition forces throughout the region — Tunisia and Egypt — neither has actually seen the regime change that the rest of the world (not to mention the protesters in each respective country) seems to believe has taken place. One cannot rule out the possibility of regime change happening in one or more country in the greater Middle East, but it hasn’t happened yet.