February 1, 2011 | Politico

How Far Will Egypt Tumult Spread?

Immediately after the fall of Tunisia's 23-year dictator, Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali, analysts warned of a domino effect across the Arab world. Would-be democrats in other Arab countries reasoned that if a small country like Tunisia could topple its dictator, perhaps the strategy could be replicated in larger Arab states.

In the days following Ben Ali's flight to Saudi Arabia on January 14, several brave souls did the unthinkable and immolated themselves to protest their regimes. Their goal was to set off the same reaction that took place in Tunisia, stemming from the shock and rage surrounding the plight of Mohammed Bouazizi, the rural street peddler who set himself alight after authorities shut down his produce stand — his only livelihood. Since then, there have been four self-immolations in Algeria, at least nine in Egypt, one in Mauritania, one in Saudi Arabia, and another report of one in Tunisia.

None of these incidents started the chain reaction that took place in Tunisia, but Arab protesters are still trying to replicate the Tunisian model of regime change. Egypt appears closest, with protests against the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak now in their eighth straight day. The estimated 300,000 protestors who have flocked to the streets today have made clear that they seek nothing less than an end to the regime. Indeed, Mubarak's announcement that he will not seek reelection in September 2011, coupled with promises of liberalization, may not be enough to placate them.

The media is now awash with reports that Jordan may be next. On Tuesday, after three straight Friday protests, King Abdullah II sacked his entire cabinet. The King is now in dialogue with the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, operating under the Islamic Action Front, about political and economic reforms. While such measures are long overdue in Jordan, the cabinet shake-up smacks of a last-ditch effort to salvage legitimacy, and follows identical but unsuccessful moves by Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia. For now, however, Jordan appears to be stable.

Rumors are now circulating that protests may be on the way in Syria. A “day of rage” is set for Saturday. But it's hard to imagine that the Syrian population will rise up, as the country is an absolute police state. Indeed, one Syrian analyst suggests to me that the calls to protest may simply be a trap set by the regime to identify and root out dissidents.

A more troublesome spot is Yemen, where more than 3,000 protesters came out in the country's south on Monday, demanding a change in leadership. Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has been in power since 1978. At 32 years, his term has outlasted those of both Mubarak (30 years) and Ben Ali (23 years). While protests have gone on for much of the past week, the regime does not appear to be in imminent danger.

Interestingly, the Arab leadership that may be next to go is the Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. The release by al-Jazeera of documents revealing that the PA was prepared to make certain concessions to Israel have sparked anger across the West Bank as well as the Gaza Strip, where the more radical Hamas holds power. As one Palestinian analyst noted, the streets of the West Bank have been largely quiet, but it may only be a matter of time before Palestinians make known their revulsion at their leadership. In what appears to be a pre-emptive step, the PA announced it will hold local council elections “as soon as possible.” The PA has not held elections since 1996, and the move seems inextricably tied to the unrest through the region.

The importance of Egypt, however, cannot be overstated. Cairo is the capital of the Arab world. If Mubarak's regime crumbles, it could lead to contagion, and more chaos to follow.