The revolutionary tidal wave (or, if you prefer, the "Tunisami") sweeping the Middle East and North Africa spreads ever wider, as in country after country young protesters take to the streets in an attempt to change their countries' governments. But don't expect an outcome equal to the (mostly) peaceful overthrows in Tunisia and Egypt in every single country now affected by this "people power" movement. There are major differences from country to country, both in terms of the form of government (and the military), and in terms of the likelihood of a victorious outcome for the protesters.
Examining a few of these countries will show that not all people-powered revolutions in the region are going to turn out the same. Here are my thoughts on the current state of revolution in these states in the Middle East, country by country (roughly listed by their possible chance of success).
The outcome in Egypt has, so far, been joyously positive. The military's coup has satisfied the people in the streets, and the military leaders are on a fast track to changing the country's laws for the better (the constitutional rewriting committee has been given only 10 days to report, for instance). Free and fair elections should follow almost as quickly -- constrained only by the amount of time it will take to form political parties from scratch.
Dark fears of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover seem to be fading, unless you get all your news from Fox. But the real test of a newborn democracy is a long way off for the country. Because the stability and longevity of a nascent democracy is not what happens in the first election, it's what happens in the first election in which the power changes hands. Say the first free elections take place in Egypt, and Political Party A wins. One or two elections down the road, Political Party B gains more votes. This is the precise moment when a new democracy is tested -- by the first handover of power. If the transfer of power proceeds smoothly (no rigged election results, no riots in the street, no military interference), the democracy will likely stand the test of time. If it does not, this is usually the point where a new strongman emerges and declares himself "leader for life."
I'm not saying Egypt will choose one route or the other, I'm just saying the real test for Egypt is a long way off.
But I really mentioned Egypt first here to point out two factors in their successful revolution that are worth looking at when examining other current street movements in the region. Because while there are many factors at play during such crises, these two may offer some way to gauge the possibilities of success elsewhere.
The first is the fact that Egypt acutely cares how the rest of the world (the West, in particular) sees it. Tourism is not just a huge industry in Egypt, it is a big chunk of their entire economy. Mubarak and his military leaders were restrained by this. If video images of crowds being shot down in the streets by the Egyptian military were broadcast to the rest of the world, it would likely kill the tourism industry there for years to come -- with disastrous consequences for the Egyptian economy (Egypt has no oil, remember).
The second big factor in Egypt is the close and continuing ties between the Egyptian military and the United States. When the history of what really just happened in Egypt is fully written, my guess is that this is going to turn out to have been one of (if not "the") biggest factors in how peacefully it was resolved.
These two factors are worth thinking about, as we turn to other countries' revolutionary movements, and when we are attempting to figure out what the chances for success are elsewhere.
Most Americans would be hard-pressed to locate this tiny kingdom on a map. However, if you happen to be serving in the United States Navy, you would have no problem locating the island (technically: archipelago) nation at all, since it is home to both the Fifth Fleet as well as the Naval Forces Central Command.
Bahrain has oil reserves, but it was one of the first countries in the Middle East to begin diversifying their economy beyond mere oil money. It now is one of the fastest-growing financial centers in the world, and is home to many multinational corporations. It also has developed a tourism industry, although most of the tourists who visit arrive from other Middle Eastern countries.
So, on both counts, Bahrain may be the closest parallel to the Egyptian revolution. Bahrain values how the world sees them (including the West), and they have very close military ties to the United States.
Whether this means the demonstrators in the street will succeed in their revolution attempt or not is still an open question. Bahrain is more liberal than some of its neighbors, but is still ruled by a monarchy. But we've already seen some pretty ugly video of protesters being violently suppressed, so which way things go is anybody's guess.
Bahrain is a fairly tiny place, too, with just over a million inhabitants. The crowds will likely be smaller than in Egypt (no matter what percentage of the populace turns out on the streets), which may be a factor in how the police treat them.
Countering the government's urge to violently crack down, though, is their desire to be seen as a world banking leader. They do care, in other words, what the rest of the world thinks of them. And the United States military likely has even more influence over Bahrain's military than they do over Egypt's. These factors could both aid the protesters in assuring that the police crackdown doesn't get out of control.
Call it the "inconvenient protest movement." While American media has largely been ignoring it, there has been a growing protest movement in Iraq against the government, including government buildings being burned.
The American media has been shying away from this story, because it doesn't neatly fit into the narrative they've settled upon for the Tunisami. To be blunt: This wasn't supposed to happen. Iraq, after all, already has democracy, right? Isn't that what more than 4,000 American troops died for? We already overthrew their dictator for them, so why would they be out in the streets?
Well, maybe they're just sick of seeing governmental corruption, and only getting electricity for a few hours a day. Maybe they (unlike the American people who paid for it) remember what a joke the "reconstruction" of their country was -- with billions looted from the funds, and insane projects which were half-finished or of such sub-standard construction as to be worthless. And they still only get a few hours of electricity per day.
Brutally oppressing a street uprising in Iraq wouldn't be all that hard to do, since the Iraqi government could just slap a "terrorist" or "anti-American" label on the protesters and then proceed to crack down on it. Since the American media show little or no interest to cover this story (while there are far easier storylines in the region's revolutionary movements), they could even get away with it. Or, more optimistically, they could just wait out the demonstrations without cracking down.
Complicating the situation, of course, is the fact that America doesn't just have ties to the Iraqi military, we are still in essence part of the Iraqi military, to the tune of 50,000 American troops which are still in Iraq. But until the American media start covering the story, this will probably wind up being low-level news, perhaps with some minor changes in government but without the dramatic shift seen elsewhere.
Yemen, on the other hand, could wind up seeing a bloodbath. Yemen has no strong ties to the West, has virtually no tourism industry to speak of, and is currently in a civil war anyway. None of which points to a good outcome.
Exacerbating this is the fact that the government that the protesters are against are really the strongest supporters of the U.S. military in the country. They've allowed us a de facto "al Qaeda hunting permit" in their country, to use drone and missile attacks pretty much at will against suspected terrorists. The central government is much more concerned with its own civil war, so they've given America a pretty free hand elsewhere.
But there's no long or deep history between the American military and the Yemeni military, meaning the close ties are going to work against the despot, instead of providing a calming influence in terms of lessening the violence in the streets.
The Yemeni leader has announced some concessions already, such as not seeking a new term in office -- but the next election isn't scheduled for years. It may not be enough. The people power movement may actually win here, but it is likely going to have a much harder physical fight to achieve its goals. And, sadly, the possibility of a very bloody end to the demonstrations is a real possibility.
The last time the people rose up in the streets of Iran, the outcome was not pretty. At the time, American conservatives latched onto a theory: If President Obama had strongly voiced America's support for the uprising, then things would have been different. This theory is about to be tested. My guess is that exactly the same thing is going to happen -- the street protests will be brutally suppressed, just like the last one was. That's just a guess, and of course I could be wrong, so we'll just have to wait and see. But the theory from the American political Right is indeed about to be tested.
President Obama, of course, is aware of America's history in Iran -- reaching back further than 1979, all the way to the 1950s, when the CIA overthrew a democratically-elected government in Iran and installed a despot. Obama actually admitted this history in his historic Cairo speech to the Muslim world. Iran has every reason to fear an American overthrow of their government because we have previously done so -- within living memory. Which is why loudly proclaiming America was on the side of the earlier protesters in Iran would have been akin to a kiss of death for them and their movement. Iranians themselves said exactly this during the previous protest, but the conservatives in America weren't listening. In their view, if Obama had only praised the protesters, some sort of better conclusion would have happened. Somehow (they never really address the "how" question).
But now, Obama has seen an opening and grabbed it. Because the wave of protests across the region are obviously not some American plot, and because the protesters in Iran are quite obviously inspired by Tunisia and Egypt and not the C.I.A., the White House is now free to voice strong support for the protests currently happening in Iran. The Iranian government had even planned a public rally in support of the Egyptians -- which means they couldn't blame the whole thing on America when opposing protesters marched in the same streets for the same reason.
This support has been about a full-throated as can be imagined, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden took the lead in denouncing Iran's crackdown of recent protests, and voicing strong support for the protesters, on general principles. President Obama himself has echoed the same language. In short, the White House is now doing everything its conservative critics were calling on it to do previously.
But that doesn't mean the end result is going to be any different, of course. By our two criteria, the government of Iran sees no upside to a peaceful revolution in its streets, and no downside to a brutal repression of demonstrators. Iran really doesn't care what the West thinks of it. It likes to see itself as a regional leader, but beyond the Middle East, Iran could care less what Europe or the United States thinks about it or says about it in the media. And Iran's military is no friend of the United States or our military -- not by a long shot.
In other words, while the White House's recent strong support of Iranian protesters may make a certain segment of the American political world feel better, there is not a whole lot of chance that this support is going to change much of anything on the ground for the Iranian protesters. Iran is well-versed in how to put down such uprisings (complete with kangaroo-court trials and lots of executions), and I don't really expect them to do anything different in the next few weeks.
As I said, of course, I could be wrong. This is one case where I would enjoy being proven wrong, actually. The one thing Iran has going for it that places like Bahrain and Yemen don't is its size. If millions of people kept pouring into the streets, day after day, then perhaps the Iranian government would actually fall eventually. But if this happens, there will be more blood shed before it does than anywhere else. Because I just don't see the Iranians giving up control without a brutal fight -- no matter what President Obama has to say about it in the meantime.
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