The Middle East so far has two role models for dealing with pro-democracy protests; Iran and Tunisia. They represent a choice as old as man; fight or flight. The rarer choice is a peaceful transition to legitimate democracy.
The fight impulse requires confidence and guns to succeed. In Iran, the protesters are being violently repressed by a regime willing to wage war against its own people, confident that the military and the other security forces will carry out the will of the government against the people and to commit whatever atrocities necessary to bring the protests under control. Violent suppression can succeed in its aims for a long time, as the Mugabe government in Zimbabwe and the North Korean dictatorship demonstrate. However, suppression has a sell-by date, even if the date itself is almost always a surprise. See East Germany, 1989.
The flight impulse results from a lack of confidence and insecurity about which way the guns will point. In Tunisia, the government lost confidence in its own ability to suppress the unrest by committing the security forces to violence against its people. Lacking confidence, the leadership fled and the protests seem to be evolving into a successful revolution. The early euphoria is no guarantee of legitimate democracy being successfully established.
Illegitimate regimes only have a choice between fight or flight. There are no other options once the populace decide to challenge the regime en masse. The genius of legitimate democracy is that it creates stability by allowing a third choice: peaceful democratic transition. South Africa is a rare example of peaceful transition to legitimate democracy from an undemocratic state.
The uprisings in the Middle East will only succeed where the regime lacks the will to turn guns on its people. Most protests would most likely be suppressed. It is not yet clear whether even successful uprisings will eventually result in legitimate democracy.
As for Egypt specifically, its people could yet win this one if the world’s democracies put pressure on the Egyptian government to create conditions for a peaceful transition to legitimate democracy. If not, Egyptions will learn to regret the lack of will amongst the world’s democracies, if the Egyption generals shortly make the decision to fight. Of course the generals may in turn regret such a choice, but in the longer term. Suppress in haste, regret at leisure…
If there is a successful revolution or a peaceful transition through legitimate elections in Egypt, the dictators in the Middle East are all doomed in due course. Then, the clock may run out faster for suppression in the Middle East than now expected. Will we see fight or flight, or dare we dream that the rara avis of peaceful transition to legitimate democracy could take off anywhere or even everywhere in the Middle East?