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Walker's World: The Egyptian shock

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus

PARIS, Jan. 31 (UPI) -- Only a fool would seek to predict the course of the Tunisian and now the Egyptian revolutions. But only an idiot would deny that something dramatic and profound is under way in the wider Arab and Islamic worlds and it is far more than just a political phenomenon.

First, note the distinction between the Arabic and the Islamic worlds; between the nationalist and the religious forces at work. There is a distinctly nationalist tradition and aspect to the Egyptian drama. Egypt was long the crucial Arab state, the country that led the wars against Israel in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973 and also led the peace process at Camp David.

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Egypt is special, with its population of 84 million, its tradition of great newspapers like Al-Ahram under Mohamed Heikal, its singers and popular artists who were famed across the Arab world like Umm Kulthum. It has long been the cultural heart of Arabism in a way that Tunisia or Algeria or even Syria have never been. Only Iraq has a cultural tradition of similar depth and influence.

So Tunisia may have started this political phase of the process but Egypt will define its momentum and determine how much further it spreads. The events in Cairo this week are likely to indicate whether the people of Morocco and Syria and the Arabian Peninsula take to the streets in their turn.

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But that is just the politics. Even if the streets stay quiet and the armies remain in their barracks, the same tumultuous changes that underpinned the events in Tunisia and Egypt are rocking the rest of the Arab and Islamic worlds. It is always dangerous to make cross-cultural comparisons but it is illuminating to suggest that these worlds are currently undergoing simultaneously their Renaissance, their Reformation, their Enlightenment and their Industrial and Information Revolutions.

It took the West six centuries to experience and absorb each of these great events and to experience the social and economic and intellectual change that each of them represented. The Renaissance changed the way people thought about the world around them. The Reformation changed the way they thought about religion and religious authority. The Enlightenment changed the way they thought about authority in general and about education and independent thought and the degree to which individuals could chart and define their own course in life.

We can see these dramas at work in various different ways, perhaps most dramatically in the demographic revolution that has taken place across much of the Arab world, where only Oman, Yemen and the Palestinian territories still have the kind of birth rate that doubles that population in a generation. Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, the Emirates and Bahrain and Kuwait and Turkey and Iran all have birth rates below the world average of 2.5 children per woman.

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Tunisia's birth rate has been below replacement level for a decade. Egypt's fertility rate is now at 2.8 and dropping, half of the rate that it was the 1970s. (One theory among Arab social scientists is that the extraordinary popularity of Oprah Winfrey's TV shows, which are widely screened by satellite and dubbed into Arabic, has played an important role in widening the parameters of debate over women's roles and rights.)

To go through these life-changing transformations at the same time that industrialization and globalization change economic life and the information revolution brings Twitter and Facebook and Internet doesn't simply present a well-entrenched police state with dramatic new challenges. They create new social classes, new sources of wealth and power apart from the state and new social vulnerabilities that authoritarian regimes find it difficult to manage.

Above all, these changes are also at work on the crucial personnel in the police and security forces on whom such regimes depend. Usually, despots only fall when they have lost their nerve, which means when they feel they can no longer command the loyalty of the police and soldiers, which is why the East German and Czech and Polish regimes fell in 1989 and why the anti-Gorbachev coup of 1991 failed in Moscow.

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Something similar seems to have happened in Tunisia, where the army decided it wouldn't sustain the government of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Some such calculations must have been gripping the minds of senior police and army officers in Egypt in recent days. Their counterparts from Morocco to the Persian Gulf are doubtless asking themselves similar questions already.

And in the back of their minds will also be the question whether the post-recession United States, after its setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, still has the will or the ability to influence events in the Middle East.

On top of all this is the religious issue of Islam, currently undergoing various forms of dispute and civil war between fundamentalists and modernizers, between Sunni and Shiite, between Sufi and Wahhabists. These are stirring and terrible times, as full of hope as they are of danger, as a billion Muslims across the world grapple with these contending shocks that history has thrown at them all at once.

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