Round one of the Middle Eastern upheavals consisted of uncannily parallel coups d'état in Tunisia and Egypt. In both, street demonstrations prompted the security/military establishment to rid itself of a rapacious, unpopular president. Events moved so quickly because, faced with rejection by their own institutional power bases, Presidents Ben Ali and Mubarak had little choice but to resign. They were rapidly replaced by another security/military leader who kept most of the governing institutions, practices, and policies in place. Neither liberals nor Islamists made much of a difference over the subsequent half year.
Round two consists of the near-certain overthrow of the Qaddafi regime in Libya and the likely overthrow of the Asad dynasty in Syria as well as the Saleh regime in Yemen. In all three cases, revolution is underway. Should these leaders fall, so do the institutions of their rule, leading to chaos and the eventual founding of an entirely new government. In the Syrian and Yemeni cases, there could well be no effective central government but the devolution of power to regions, ethnicities, ideological groups, or tribes.
In other words, the second round is more consequential than the first. Further, the five aforementioned states may not be the only ones in play. Algeria and Jordan could undergo similar processes of upheaval and revolution. Plus, picking up from the repressed riots of 2009, some small spark could set off a conflagration in Iran, the Middle East's most disruptive state.
Round three could even follow, consisting of regional breakups. Prime candidates here include Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Turkey.
In brief, we could be just at the start of a wild ride in the world's most volatile region. (August 25, 2011)