Egypt protests: an Arab spring as old order crumbles?

Protester holds photo of Hosni Mubarak with 'out' written across it Protesters in Cairo have made it clear they want President Mubarak to leave

The Arab order is crumbling. But whether it will collapse or somehow re-invent itself is far from certain.

Arab rulers, from North Africa to the Gulf, in rich countries and poor, find themselves in essentially the same boat.

Virtually without exception, they preside over corrupt autocracies with little or no legitimacy in the eyes of their people.

All of them now watch Egypt's "days of rage" with mounting trepidation. In the fate of the ailing Egyptian ruler, 82-year-old Hosni Mubarak, they see their own.

Western commentators are right to say the protests are about "them" rather than "us".

The anger of the protesters is largely directed inwards - at a bankrupt Arab order - rather than outwards at Israel, the United States or the West.

Largely, but not entirely. The West is complicit in Arab autocracy.

For decades, American and European leaders chose stability over democracy. Now the chickens are coming home to roost.

Anti-government rally in the Jordanian capital, Amman Jordan has announced political reforms following rallies in the capital, Amman

President George W Bush tried, briefly, to pursue a "freedom agenda" in the Middle East but it failed, and ageing autocrats could once again breathe freely.

Now, Western leaders including Barack Obama find themselves essentially onlookers as events move with dizzying speed towards an outcome none can foresee.

Others are spectators, too, even if they pretend otherwise.

Iran is acting as if the Arab masses are belatedly following the example of the Khomeini revolution.

In fact, if the young demonstrators have a role model - and some actively disavow one - it is democratic Turkey rather than theocratic Iran.

Also a bystander is al-Qaeda, whose pretensions to being the voice of Arab and Muslim discontent have been punctured.

Who owns the future?

Analysts would do well to exercise a little humility.

My own guess, for what it is worth, is that this is not the beginning of an Arab spring, but of something more messy and drawn-out.

The old order still has plenty of fight in it.

The battle for the Arab future is under way. Since the stakes are high, the struggle will be fierce.

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

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