The upheavals rocking the Arab world, which have surprised rulers and observers alike, are far from over and have more surprises in store. But several characteristics can already be detected at this stage that will presumably come to play in the future as well.
The novelty in the recent events is that for the first time, Arab regimes have been toppled by popular uprisings. The Arab states had hitherto known only military coups and putsches. At times these were violent, as in Syria, Iraq or Yemen, and their leaders declared themselves "revolutionary councils." But in every case it was the army that seized power.
It is already clear, however, that despite the common aspects of the events in the Arab world, fed by access to borderless media, the developments are far from homogenous. Despite the existence of an encompassing Arab ideology, the determining factor is ultimately not what these developments have in common but the different social and historical conditions in each country.
First, it turns out that it is easier to overthrow relatively moderate authoritarian regimes that allowed a certain leeway for civil society to function, such as in Tunis or Egypt, than brutally oppressive regimes. Syria, Libya and even Iran show that the more oppressive the regime, the harder it is to bring it down. Zine El Abidine Ben-Ali and Hosni Mubarak may have been authoritarian rulers, but compared to Bashar Assad and Muammar Gadhafi, they were softies.
Second, traditional monarchies handle mass demonstrations better than republican regimes. This is because the monarchies have traditional legitimacy - in Jordan and Morocco the kings are seen as the Prophet's descendants and the Saudi dynasty is the protector of the holy sites. Republican leaders like Ben-Ali and Mubarak were merely members of a military junta that seized power by overthrowing the government. The monarchies' legitimacy could crack, especially in problematic places like Bahrain, but in the meantime it serves as a relatively effective defense shield.
Third, when a regime like Gadhafi's - combining an eccentric yet resolved personality with brainwashing ideology and loyal militias - decides to defend itself and does not hesitate to use force, the rebels have difficulty overthrowing him. Mubarak resigned because he hesitated to use force. The Libyan ruler has no such inhibitions. He may be defeated but it will be accompanied by blood and fire, not a retirement to Sharm el-Sheikh.
Fourth, overthrowing an oppressive regime does not guarantee transition to a stable democracy. In the meantime, the army is ruling Egypt and the questions of whether and how elections will be held and who will rise to power remain open. It is also unclear if the army will give up power.
Finally, "the world." The West is imposing sanctions and issuing lofty statements against Gadhafi, with whom most of these countries did good business until recently. But the West will not use force to carry out the values it is brandishing.
Everyone - the U.S. president, the European Union, NATO - will call on Gadhafi to go but hide behind the need for a Security Council resolution to use force, a resolution they all know Russia and China will veto. If a mass massacre takes place in Libya like in Srebrenica, or if Western nationals are hurt, perhaps the West will intervene. Talk about human rights does not always hold water when other people's lives are at stake - Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Darfur - and now Libya as well.
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