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Arab Upheaval 'An Appetizer For What's To Come'

Many Fridays this year have proved to be decisive for protest movements throughout the Muslim world. The primary day of prayer has turned into an organizing tool, and protesters in Syria are calling for massive turnouts this Friday.

They may be disappointed — or so successful that they prompt Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to announce new concessions, following his lifting of decades-old emergency laws on Tuesday.

Regardless, the protests that have already spread to many Syrian cities and towns over the past month demonstrate one thing: Unrest across the Middle East and North Africa has not yet run its course.

"People's sensibilities have changed and they see these elites can be toppled," says Augustus Richard Norton, an international relations professor at Boston University. "I think the last few months are only an appetizer for what's to come."

Ending The Fear Factor

Something has changed in a very profound way. This is a historic watershed, there's no doubt about it.

There may be no regimes at this point that look ready to fall, but the social dynamic that has long been dominant in most Muslim countries — namely, the "fear factor" — has been shattered, suggests Rajan Menon, a political scientist at City College of New York.

A fire has been set that could flare up again at any time. Headlines suggesting the "Arab world has changed forever" may have been premature, Menon says, but it's possible that countries appearing as stable at the moment could suddenly erupt at any time — be it in six months or two years.

It may be purely local events that prompt such protests, but conditions for them will be deeply informed by the changes that have occurred in neighboring societies this year.

"We may not have a regionwide conflagration now, but what has been displayed to the Arab masses, especially in extremely young societies, is that these regimes are not unshakable," Menon says. "Whether these regimes lead to democracy or some sort of improved autocracy or chaos we cannot tell, but the old social compact has been destroyed forever."

Lack Of Recent Movement

Following the rapid removal from office of the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt in January and February, no Arab head of state has stepped down. Moammar Gadhafi still controls most of Libya, despite international military support given to the rebellion there.

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has appeared in recent weeks the most likely candidate for removal, reiterated Wednesday that he would not leave office until his successor can be chosen through an election, currently scheduled for 2013.

Most other Arab leaders have appeared secure. There has been no serious immediate threat to the rule of any monarchies, save that of Bahrain, where protests have been squelched through military intervention. No other country has a military or security force that appears likely to turn on its top leader, as happened in Tunisia and Egypt.

While the protests that have spread through Syria over the past month may continue to grow in size and scope, they don't look likely to topple Assad any time soon, says University of Pennsylvania political scientist Ian Lustick.

"The Syrian regime has a lot more repressive resources to use than it has so far," he says.

More Action To Come?

But just because the revolutionary fever seems to have cooled in some places doesn't mean that it's broken.

"There's not going to be a sweep across the region," says Menon, the City College professor. "But Arabs have figured out that these regimes, which they thought were immovable objects, are not that."

Even countries that haven't seen enormous demonstrations have experienced some important changes, such as Algeria's lifting of its 19-year-old emergency law, says Norton, the Boston University professor, who is also a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies.

It's certainly not clear what will happen after regimes are threatened or toppled. Even after things shake out over the coming months and years, observers say, democracy may not take any deeper root in the Muslim world than it has now.

But Tunisia and Egypt have provided a model that dissidents in other countries can follow at any time, Menon says. Regimes cannot put a stop to gatherings for prayer, nor can they take away social media and other online organizing tools, unless they want to cut off their countries from the modern economic sphere.

Change will not be easy or without risk. But it now appears possible in a part of the world that has long resisted it.

"Something has changed in a very profound way," Norton says. "This is a historic watershed, there's no doubt about it."

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