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From Libya to Bahrain, Mideast autocracy under fire

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"It would be wrong to say that Tunisia or Egypt ignited a new pattern of protest or generated new expectations ... they've existed, but the organizers in many of these countries sense a new opportunity," says Toby Craig Jones, a historian of the Middle East at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

"There's this talk about a new Pan-Arabism, a new nationalist moment – I'm not sure that's right yet, but there is a perception that people across international borders are aware they have a common experience and interests given the autocrats and economic challenges they share, so whatever it is that exists up in the stratosphere, it's meaningful," Dr. Jones adds, referring to the spirit of revolt in the region.

Protests pose quandary for US

Libya, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain, and Iran have all witnessed democracy protests in recent weeks, throwing into disarray America's decades-old regional policy of supporting autocrats in exchange for stability.

Both the US and ally Israel are concerned by the prospect of states whose policies may be formulated based on the desires of their people – potentially giving fuller expression to Islamist forces – rather than the deals their rulers make with other nations.

But while pro-democracy protesters may have a bad word for US support of their dictators, they're mostly focused on the regimes at home.

The Arab world is far from homogeneous. There are different cultures, different dialects, and different economic factors at play. But Egypt has clearly created a new sense of what's possible.

Bahrain the most vulnerable

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