The most telling aspect of the anti-regime demonstrations that have rocked the Arab world is what they are not about: They are not about the existential plight of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation; nor are they at least overtly anti-Western or even anti-American. The demonstrators have directed their ire against unemployment, tyranny, and the general lack of dignity and justice in their own societies. This constitutes a sea change in modern Middle Eastern history.
Of course, such was the course of demonstrations against the Shah of Iran in 1978 and 1979, before that revolution was hijacked by Islamists. But in none of these Arab countries is there a charismatic Islamic radical who is the oppositional focal point, like Ayatollah Khomeini was; nor are the various Islamist organizations in the Arab world as theoretical and ideological in their anti-Americanism as was the Shiite clergy. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt functions to a significant extent as a community self-help organization and may not necessarily try to hijack the uprising to the extent as happened in Iran. And even Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is not quite so identified with American interests as was the shah. The differences between 2011 in Egypt and 1978 in Iran are more profound than the similarities.
Furthermore, whatever the outcome of these uprisings, it seems clear that Arabs and their new leaders will be focused for years to come on the imperfections within their own societies -- perhaps to a greater degree than on injustices committed by Israel and the West abroad. Indeed, in Tunisia the demonstrations were partially spurred by the WikiLeaks cables that showed Washington deeply ambivalent about the regime and not likely to stand with it in a crisis. Politics may thus become normalized in the Arab world, rather than radicalized. Remember: A signal goal of al Qaeda was the toppling of such regimes as Mubarak's, which oppressed their own people and were seen as toadies to American and Israeli interests. If Mubarak goes, al Qaeda will lose a recruiting argument.
But the dangers to U.S. interests of what comes next in the Arab world are hard to exaggerate. Were demonstrations to spread in a big way to Jordan and Saudi Arabia, a catastrophe could be looming. A more enlightened, pro-American regime than the one now in Jordan is hard to imagine. As for the Saudi royal family, it is probably the worst possible form of government for that country except for any other that might credibly replace it. Imagine all that weaponry the United States has sold the Saudis over the decades falling into the hands of Wahhabi radicals. Imagine Yemen were it divided once again into northern and southern parts, or with even weaker central control issuing from the capital city of Sanaa. The United States would be virtually on its own battling al Qaeda there.
Right now all these uprisings look somewhat the same, as they did in Eastern Europe in 1989. But like in Eastern Europe, each country will end up a bit differently, with politics reflecting its particular constituency and state of institutional and educational development. Poland and Hungary had relatively easy paths to capitalism and democracy; Romania and Bulgaria were sunk in abject poverty for years; Albania suffered occasional bouts of anarchy; and Yugoslavia descended into civil war that killed hundreds of thousands of people. The Arab world is in some ways more diverse than Eastern Europe, and we should therefore heed the uniqueness of each country's political and historical situation in calibrating U.S. policy.
President Barack Obama's administration should stand up for first principles of civil society, nonviolence, and human rights everywhere; and where an autocrat appears on the way out, as happened in Tunisia and might happen in Egypt, the United States can play a constructive role in easing his removal, even as it reaches out to the new political forces at play. American diplomacy in the Arab world is about to become even more intricate. No longer will it be a matter of having one telephone number to call in each country. Henceforth, Washington will have to deal with dozens of political personalities to get the same things done as it used to with just one leader. Democracy equals complexity.