When George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003, there was widespread talk about how the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the hoped-for birth of democracy would provide an inspiration to an Arab world largely stultified by authoritarian dictatorship. The great wave of reform, of course, never materialized. Until now. But there is, of course, precious little evidence that Iraq’s extremely nascent and fragile democracy has inspired what’s happening in Egypt. If so, however, it would represent another way in which that invasion has backfired in unexpected ways. The autocrats that the Bushies hoped to topple were figures like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and the theological rulers of Iran. Instead the masses have now come for one of America’s principal allies in the region.
It is, of course, possible that this popular movement isn’t finished. Al Jazeera reports that, while Damascus has been calm, there are signs of anxiety on the part of Assad’s regime:
On Friday evening, as protests in Cairo reached a crescendo, the streets of Damascus were unusually quiet, with many people staying at home to watch the news. Syria’s state-run media quoted some news reports from Cairo, but offered no comment or analysis on the situation.
By Saturday morning life had returned to normal with few signs, on the surface at least, that the authorities were concerned about potential unrest….
Online, however, it was a different story. Internet users reported a significant slowdown in the web, with searches for news on Egypt often crashing browsers.
Heavy user traffic could be an explanation but in Syria, where thousands of websites deemed opposed to state interests are blocked and where Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media are banned, authorities denied accusations they had restricted the service to prevent citizens hearing about events in Cairo.
Earlier this week, though, authorities banned programmes that allow access to Facebook Chat from mobile phones, a cheap and easy means of staying in touch that had exploded in popularity among young Syrians.
Meanwhile, the New York Times, reporting on Arab executive opinion from Davos, throws some cold water on the idea that Saudi Arabia could be next:
Few of them expected a revolution to spread across the oil-rich nations of the Persian Gulf and the United Arab Emirates, where the governments are monarchies, which often do not create the types of expectations that accompany a democracy. Rulers in these countries use their oil wealth to invest in social stability by ensuring their own people lead comfortable lives through subsidies on things like electricity, education and food.
“Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries are going to be spared because they are not democratic regimes,” said Jamal Khashoggi, the general manager of Al Waleed 24 News Channel. People there “don’t feel cheated because there are no elections,” he said. By contrast, he said, “I can feel the agony of an Egyptian when he sees how democracy is mocked.”
Sounds plausible, and yet who could have predicted a week ago that Hosni Mubarak would be on the brink of ouster?