When an American marine momentarily placed the Stars and Stripes over a Baghdad statue of Saddam Hussein before it was pulled from its pedestal last week, the ebullient gesture inadvertently underscored an important reality of this toppling of a regime. It was planned and carried out by powers from outside Iraq, not from within.
For the Arab world, what is already being called the "Iraq earthquake" is not Algeria, which won its independence from France in a defining national struggle, or the Iranian revolution, which toppled the shah.
It is not Romania, where the people deposed the reviled Nicolae Ceausescu, or even arguably Afghanistan, where the Northern Alliance, hardened by years of civil war, played a crucial home-grown role in the ouster of the Taliban regime.
Instead, this liberation from dictatorship will have been effected by an American-led coalition. Although it remains to be seen just how this plays out, its different starting point could present, in turn, a different set of challenges. These range from a potential for dependence on the liberators to latent resentments as the euphoria of promised freedoms confronts the realities of a difficult and complex reconstruction period.
And it could pose difficulties for the United States as it seeks to improve its relations with the Arab world. "If this is another Berlin Wall, then it is the Berlin Wall being torn down by an outside power, and that's something very different," says Thomas Carothers, a specialist in democracy-building at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "You don't have the sense of a society participating in its emancipation or galvanized around a central idea or national project."
In such circumstances, building a sense of national purpose and direction, particularly among a mosaic of ethnic and religious groups, will not be easy.
The extensive looting that has accompanied Mr. Hussein's fall might be explained by the difficult economic straits that Iraqis have endured over 12 years of economic sanctions and a dictator's deprivations, says Edmund Ghareeb, a specialist in Kurdish and Iraqi studies at American University in Washington. But it also suggests a willingness to strike out against a hated regime when notions of a national structure or power to replace it are so weak.
"Iraq is such a complex and diverse society, [but] if the different tribes and clans feel isolated, they are likely to turn against any regime that doesn't take them into account," says Mr. Ghareeb.
The way the US handles its rebuilding role will help determine how long resentment will be felt in the Arab world. "There is kind of a depression in the Arab world that Saddam's regime fell so quickly, and it certainly has a huge impact that it happened at the hands of Americans," says Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East specialist at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y.
Yet despite the Arab shock, he believes "there is a window of opportunity now for the US to disprove the widespread suspicions it simply couldn't tolerate a strong Arab regime and wants Iraq's oil."
One factor that will make the task of replacing Hussein's regime more difficult is that there aren't any established political groups after a quarter century of one-party - and one potentate - rule. "Algeria had the FLN that had pushed out the French; South Africa had the ANC to fill the power vacuum," says Mr. Carothers. "This [in Iraq] is actually a rather unusual situation."
Even in recent cases where the US deposed leaders, there have been other individuals more or less ready to assume the reins of power. "In Panama, we drove Noriega out, but there were political parties ready to replace him. And in Haiti, Aristide was waiting in the wings when we pushed the generals out," he notes.
Still, others say that sometimes both internal conditions and the international context make a home-grown revolt impossible and make foreign assistance more essential.
"There are situations where you can do this on your own, and others where it's impossible," says András Simonyi, Hungary's ambassador to the US. Drawing on Hungary's experience, Ambassador Simonyi says Hungarians waited for the Americans to arrive in 1956 to save them from Soviet occupation. It didn't happen - and Hungarians alone could not stop the Soviet invasion. That's one reason he says Hungary "joined this coalition to liberate Iraq: We know what it means when democracies fail to act."
Simonyi also says it would be unrealistic to have expected Iraqis to topple Hussein on their own. By the time Hungarians did throw off the communist regime, "[it] simply was not as harsh as the Iraqi regime."
Even to some Arab intellectuals, the entrenchment of autocratic regimes means that outside help, particularly from the US, will be needed. But that is a minority view, Professor Gerges says. The models for the majority of Arabs striving for change are two, he adds: the 1979 Iranian revolution, and more recently, Turkey, in which a government headed by an Islamic political party peacefully and democratically came to power.
Both of those models feature native actors - which is why many experts see it as important for the US to stick to its stated priority of turning the decisionmaking portion of regime change over to the Iraqis themselves.
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges now for the coalition of liberators will be to begin delivering on the promises of freedom, food, and medicine, without setting in motion reactions either of dependence or resentment.
"The expectations are so high now that if they are not delivered on," says American University's Ghareeb, "it will leave a very negative impression on those Iraqis who are willing to accept what has happened."