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.

Esam Al-Fetori/Reuters
A child sang as people demanded transparency from the interim government at a protest in Benghazi, Libya, last month.

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.

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.

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.

Libya: The victorious militias and their self-styled commanders are squabbling over the spoils. Unlike Mr. Mubarak's Egypt, a country of institutions if not law, Mr. Qaddafi's Libya was a chaotic, anti-institutional place where all power flowed from "the leader." Building democracy will be hard. Success remains uncertain.

Syria: The uprising against Bashar al-Assad has deteriorated into civil war, with Mr. Assad apparently willing to shed as much blood as necessary to avoid Qaddafi's fate.

Yemen: President Ali Abdullah Saleh looks increasingly likely to exit, which could spark a civil war as the opposition, protesters, loyalists, defectors, tribes, and militants try to gain the upper hand.

Bahrain: The Sunni monarchy, backed by Saudi Arabia, successfully crushed the first stage of the uprising. Activists are still pushing, but there's a reasonable chance the ruling family will survive.

Looking back, I shake my head in amazement and admiration at the bravery of millions across the region in 2011.

I made my home in Egypt from 2003 to 2008, while mostly covering the Iraq war. If you'd told me when I left that Mubarak – aging but as imperiously determined as ever to ignore the voice of his own people and install his son as successor – would be swept from power by February 2011, I'd have laughed out loud.

Instead, I was fortunate enough to witness some of this year's stunning victories that upended the region's decades-old status quo, first in Cairo, then with Libyan fighters defying Qaddafi after a lifetime of cowering – reckless, determined, inexperienced, and hungry for a war whose horrors they could not anticipate.

While it's obvious that decades of resentment and mistreatment by governments that failed to meet the aspirations of the governed finally boiled over this year, it's still not clear why now.

Sure, the rise of the Internet and social media – particularly Twitter and the rapid dissemination of videos of massacres and protests on sites like YouTube – made the task easier. But questions remain.

What do I know for sure? That the Arab uprisings were the first chapter of an unfolding new order, and that I fully expect to be scratching my head about how I got somewhere else in the region in 2012.

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