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From Libya to Bahrain, Mideast autocracy under fire

After Egypt set Arab imaginations alight, autocrats from Qaddafi to the Khalifa dynasty face an assault unparalleled since the post-World War II revolutions that brought independence.

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Both the US and ally Israel are concerned by the prospect of states whose policies may be formulated based on the desires of their people – potentially giving fuller expression to Islamist forces – rather than the deals their rulers make with other nations.

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But while pro-democracy protesters may have a bad word for US support of their dictators, they're mostly focused on the regimes at home.

The Arab world is far from homogeneous. There are different cultures, different dialects, and different economic factors at play. But Egypt has clearly created a new sense of what's possible.

Bahrain the most vulnerable

In Tunisia and Egypt, the military and ruling party appear to have bet that by sacrificing their dictators they could negotiate a transition in which their roles and privileges would be largely preserved.

How other states negotiate that quandary will do much to signal whether more revolutions will follow – and what results they will bring. Jones of Rutgers says he's not yet convinced that the current ferment will bring a a real democratic opening.

"It's not that I want to be right, it's just for reasons of historical precedent it's hard to be optimistic," he says. "Even in Egypt, the hard work remains in front of them, and often the people who start revolutions aren't the ones to finish them."

But Bahrain's Sunni monarchy looks particularly vulnerable in the face of an increasingly restless Shiite majority.

The tiny island nation, located in the Persian Gulf between Saudi Arabia and Iran, is home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet and critical to broader regional operations – including deterrence of Iranian aggression.

The ruling Khalifa family, which has held absolute power for two centuries and enjoys close ties with the US, could find themselves in an existential fight.

King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has been in power since 2002; the king's powerful uncle, Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, has held his unelected post since the nation won independence in 1971.

Unlike Egypt's largely leaderless opposition, in Bahrain the Shiite opposition movement Al-Wafaq is well-organized. It has in recent years been willing to work for change from within the system – since the November elections, it has held nearly half of the seats in the lower house of parliament. But last week it suspended its participation in the largely symbolic parliament after security forces killed protesters.

"There is an interesting shift in the political language, there have been small numbers of people protesting in Bahrain for five years now, but the discourse was about implementing the political reform promises made over the past decade," Jones says. "That's shifted. Now they are carrying signs and shouting, 'Down with the Khalifas.' "

How other protests differ from Egypt

Crucial to the revolt's success in Egypt and Tunisia was that the Army was unwilling to ruthlessly suppress the protesters. There's no guarantee that Col. Muammar Qaddafi's army will stand aside in Libya.

Laura Kasinof in Sanaa, Yemen; Nicholas Seeley in Amman, Jordan; and a correspondent in Syria, who could not be named for security reasons, contributed reporting.

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