Leading scholars on the Middle East expressed hope - but not optimism - that the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt would spread throughout the Arab world and lead to significant changes in the region's political landscape.
Eva Bellin and Ibrahim Karawan told an overflow crowd at "Furor in the Arab Street: Tunisia, Egypt and Beyond," a forum sponsored by the Crown Center for Middle East Studies in Rapaporte Treasure Hall on Feb. 14, that the prerequisites needed for successful governmental overthrows do not exist in many other Arab countries.
"In many Middle Eastern countries, a sizeable portion of the population is invested in the regime, which works to douse outrage," said Bellin, the Myra and Robert Kraft Professor of Arab Politics at Brandeis. "I am not optimistic that the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia will spread throughout the Middle East. I hope my analysis is wrong."
Ibrahim Karawan, professor of political science at the University of Utah and former director of the school's Middle East center, concurred: "I'm skeptical about the spillover effect of the regional revolutionary fever."
The Crown Center forum also included David Makovsky, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's project on the Middle East peace process, who analyzed the American government's role in the uprisings and aftermath. Shai Feldman, the Judith and Sidney Swartz Director of the Crown Center, served as moderator.
In Tunisia, Bellin said, the confluence of two key factors - outrage and impunity - led to the nationwide protests that ultimately forced autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali out of office in mid-January. He had led the North African nation for nearly a quarter-century.
The outrage grew among Tunisians after the self-immolation death of Mohamed Bouazizi, a penniless street vendor who set himself on fire to highlight the humiliating way in which his wares were confiscated by a callous government official. The uprising gathered momentum when participants realized that they could protest with impunity since the military was unwilling to shoot at them.
"The military in Tunisia was not personally invested in the regime in the way it is in other countries such as Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia," Bellin said.
The relationship between the government and armed forces was similar in Egypt, according to Karawan, and the military leaders did not want to choose between supporting longtime president Hosni Mubarak and the protesters who eventually overthrew him earlier this month.
"It's a conscription army and from the beginning it was clear that they would not shoot at their own people," Karawan said.
Makovsky told attendees that U.S. President Barack Obama worked hard to ensure that the Egyptian military would be in a strong position once Mubarak was ousted.
"The administration was very focused on trying to keep the military 'clean' and respected by the people so it could stay in command and guide the transition period," Makovsky said.
He said American diplomats will try to leverage the Egyptian example with other leaders in the Middle East as the U.S. pushes for political and social reforms. "They will try to send the message that you don't want to end up like Egypt, you want to evolve," Makovsky said.
Bellin, Karawan and Makovsky agreed that the dissolution of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt is only the first step in a lengthy process toward democratization.
"You won't get democracy overnight," Bellin said. "Protestors can bring down regimes but it doesn't automatically give rise to democracy."
"If this were a baseball game," Makovsky said, "this is probably only the second inning."