While Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak continues to resist retirement, it appears his nearly three-decade rule is coming to an end. An Accountability Revolution that began on Dec. 17 when a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire to protest corruption and forced the flight of Tunisian President Ben Ali, will soon claim its second victim.
Across the Middle East, Arabs--and Kurds, Iranians and perhaps even Turks--watching events unfold on Al Jazeera will ask why they cannot replicate events in Tunisia and Egypt. After all, Arab grievances span borders. The problem is not the gap between rich and poor, but rather recognition that they have no social mobility. Ability means far less than political and family connections. Meritocracy is about as foreign in Arab countries as a kosher deli.
Mubarak's fall will have even deeper reverberations throughout the region than Ben Ali's did. One-in-three Arabs in the Middle East live in Egypt. Tunisia was a relative backwater, but Egypt is a cornerstone for the Middle East, not only a political capital, but a cultural one as well.
Which will be the next dominoes to drop? All eyes should be on Yemen, a strategically important country at the mouth of the Red Sea. Egypt's influence on Yemen is nothing new. It was largely because of military intervention led by Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser in the 1960s that North Yemenis overthrew their monarch and installed a republic which President Ali Abdullah Saleh has led since 1978. After Yemen's reunification in 1990, Saleh expanded his power, strengthening his grip after a brief but brutal civil war in 1994 forced South Yemeni political elites to flee. He appoints not only governors but also judges. When Yemenis have a conflict with government, they can look neither toward local representatives for sympathy nor seek recourse in an independent judiciary.
Just as Saleh looked to Mubarak for inspiration, so too has Yemeni civil society looked to their Egyptian counterparts. In May 2005, Yemenis fed up with Saleh's dictatorship started a movement called Irhalu (or "Leave," in English), modeled on Egypt's Kifaya ("Enough") movement. Saleh was unwilling to tolerate independent civil society and, much as Mubarak did, cracked down as soon as he concluded that the White House attention was elsewhere. If Saleh thought he could sit pretty, however, the Egyptian uprising convinced him otherwise. On Feb. 2, 2011, he announced he would step down in 2013. Mubarak's departure imminent (there is no way the crowd that gathered to hear him speak will stand for his remaining in power), Yemenis may calculate that two years is too much and demand faster change.
In Jordan, King Abdullah II, perhaps America's foremost Arab ally, is equally vulnerable. The ailing King Hussein's 1999 declaration that Abdullah--and not Hussein's popular brother Hassan--would be the next king surprised Jordan. While Abdullah was popular in the West, he was little known at home. Only 37 years old, he spent his formative years at a Massachusetts boarding school. Fluent in English, his Arabic was faltering. He was more comfortable on state visits and at diplomatic parties than he was among his own people.
Westerners embrace Queen Rania, a Palestinian raised in Kuwait and his wife since 1993, as chic and articulate. She is unpopular in Jordan, however, where her profligate lifestyle chafes ordinary Jordanians while their economy in shambles. Abdullah's promises of reform, now almost two decades old, ring hollow on the Jordanian street.
On Feb. 1, Abdullah sought to assuage protests by firing his entire cabinet, but for many Jordanians, the King is the problem, not his minions. Jordanians may not demand an end to the monarchy, but they may seek to constrain its role. Momentum may work against the king, however. The Muslim Brotherhood is both better organized in Jordan than in Egypt and more radical, and it enjoys a fertile recruiting ground among Jordan's majority Palestinian population.
Stagnation, corruption, and dictatorship are not simply Arab phenomenon, however. Corruption is rife in Iraqi Kurdistan. That Qubad Talabani, the son of the Iraqi president, in a blog post defensively declared that his home region is not like Egypt or Tunisia, suggests it is. Regional President Massoud Barzani has, like Mubarak, accumulated several billion dollars, while those who have no political connections struggle. The region is awash in oil, but Kurds point out that only five officials--all close to Barzani and Talabani--have seen the contracts and know the whereabouts of nearly $3 billion in signing bonuses. Just as Egyptians rallied against Mubarak's son Gamal, Kurds detest Barzani's son Masrour, the head of the local intelligence service. It is doubtful they stand silently while both Barzani's refuse to subordinate themselves to the law.
Mubarak's rule is on life support, but the contagion that has ended Ben Ali's rule and gutted Mubarak's cannot be contained unless regional leaders understand that reform must be real and not just rhetorical.