What began as a self-immolation by an ordinary vegetable vendor over gross injustice has resulted in a significant change in the political landscape of Arab nations. Over 10 countries have been affected to varying degrees (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Bahrain, Yemen have been directly affected; Israel, Gaza, Syria, Lebanon are indirectly affected by uncertainty because of the tectonic political shifts, mainly in Egypt). More countries have seen change in a brief span than the world has seen in the last half-century (the last major shifts happened when, following the end of WW2, India and several other countries "liberated" themselves from occupiers. Only, this time around, it is their own Governments that are being overthrown.
It is a measure of pride that all these countries have seen non-violent protests; in some, violence has resulted because of the violent response by incumbent Governments. Nice to see that the spirit of the Mahatma lives on in the world. Since non-violent protest is inherent to democracy, even if the governments that emerge are not classical democracies, one thing is sure - they will be closer in spirit to democracy than the predecessor Governments. The predominant drive is for openness and freedom of expression – which will itself ensure transition to democracy, though there may be local flavours.
Another fallout is that it will leave American foreign policy-makers non-plussed: how can they curry favour with newly minted democracies? What will they use as a fig-leaf for their hegemonic ambitions? George Bush wanted to export democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan and attempted to rid the world of one despot and religious bigotry to do so. The first happened, the second may never.
Now, Obama cannot use that excuse, because the people themselves have ensured that democracy happens, in so many countries key to America's interests in Arabia.
The next big theatre is Bahrain – which is almost a part of Saudi Arabia (they are linked by a causeway). The US 5th Fleet is based in Bahrain, and thus US and Iranian interests are opposite. Like Iraq under Saddam, Bahrain has a majority Shia population, ruled by Sunnis. Iran, which is Shia majority and Shia-governed, clearly has strong incentive to support overthrow of the Bahraini Government, while Sunni-governed Saudi Arabia has very strong incentive to support it. Hence, we can expect a jittery Saudi ruling elite to crack down heavily and early on any incipient Shia protests in their own country. If they fail, and the contagion of rebellion affects Saudi Arabia too, with Iran ever ready to pour oil on troubled waters, and with the US looking to withdraw combat troops from Iraq in particular, and the Arab peninsula in general, the scenario looks very, very uncertain.
We have seen how fast the contagion spread from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya. So Bahrain could be the starting point for a similar chain reaction East of the Suez. Thus, quite apart from Libya, the events in Bahrain promise to have strategic overtones that are far more ominous and high-stakes.
As an observer from far-away India, I have a mere academic interest, but I can say from this vantage point that the years 2008 to 2013 will be as world-changing as the years from 1945 to 1950. Democracy, political equations, and the balance of world economic power, will decisively shift. As far as I can see it, India will be a beneficiary because of relative political stability. If only we can cure ourselves of the corruption disease, we can race ahead in the global sweepstakes.