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2011 Reflections: Suddenly, a new era in the Middle East

Seven Monitor correspondents reflect on the world's hot spots. In this installment, Dan Murphy says that if you'd told him in 2008 that Mubarak would be gone today, he'd have laughed out loud.

By Staff writer / December 31, 2011

A child sang as people demanded transparency from the interim government at a protest in Benghazi, Libya, last month.

Esam Al-Fetori/Reuters

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I'm in the back of a pickup truck doing 80 miles an hour across the desert of eastern Libya, surrounded by grinning militiamen fingering World War I-era carbines and AK-47s liberated from overrun military bases. They're headed to their first engagement. I'm wondering how on earth I got here.

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It's early March, and the flame of revolution has jumped from Tunisia to Egypt, driving out two dictators with the speed at which Rommel's tanks charged across this same dun-colored landscape 70 years ago. Libya is on fire.

I was in Cairo's Tahrir Square the night that 100,000 voices shouting "Go, go!" transformed into victory howls and ululations as Hosni Mubarak stepped down. I was more moved by that event than any other in 18 years of reporting.

IN PICTURES: Libya's conflict

Then word came trickling into Cairo that a seemingly spontaneous uprising had pushed Muammar Qaddafi's troops from eastern Libya. The Cairo reporters decamped for the border. And there I was, bouncing across North Africa, heading west to Tripoli with deliriously happy young fighters.

The wave of uprisings in dramatically different Arab states – from Baathist Syria, where minority Alawites lord over a Sunni majority, to Bahrain, where an oil-rich Sunni monarchy dominates a Shiite majority – represents a profound regional shift not seen since at least the 1950s.

This is the beginning of a new era, following the 20th century's progression from Ottoman Empire, to colonialism, and then to Arab nationalism. What it will be called and how it will take shape is uncertain. But here's a snapshot of the short-term challenges involved in this tidal shift:

Tunisia: The first to move toward revolution, it has had the smoothest transition. It saw record turnout in free elections, which brought to power Islamists who vow to work with other political groups.

Egypt: A military regime remains in place and the revolution is unfinished. Though parliamentary elections still in process make it clear that Islamists, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, are the people's choice to shape the future of the most populous Arab nation, whether the military will step aside in 2012 and allow real civilian control is unclear.

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