The force multipliers escalating events in the Middle East are television and social networking. People in Egypt saw what happened in Tunisia and took heart. People in Yemen were emboldened by demonstrations in Egypt. The net result is that the governments of Yemen and Egypt now hang in the balance.
Senior US policy makers believe that Yemen's president hangs by a thread. Consider this from a NYT dispatch today:
In a televised speech on Sunday night, Mr. Saleh tried to defuse calls for his ouster, denying opposition claims that his son would inherit his power — as has happened in Syria and, some fear, may occur in Egypt. He said he would raise army salaries, a move that appeared designed to ensure soldiers’ loyalty. Mr. Saleh has also cut income taxes in half and ordered price controls.
When you reach the point where you're buying loyalty, you no longer have it.
The question now is what happens next: Does the military step in and take over or does Yemen unravel into a Somalian-style civil war? An unraveling seems more likely than not. This is bad news for US policy makers on a number of fronts, not least because of Al Qaeda's operational capabilities in Yemen.
The situation in Egypt looks more stable, given the influence of the nation's military. If President Mubarak is eased or forced out, no one can take power without the operational consent of the military leadership. That said, the roiling discontent of the population will not be assuaged by a simple swap-out at the top. Political freedoms, once acquired, are not something people just turn back in.
Demand #1 would be a do-over of the recent parliamentary elections, which were widely (and accurately) viewed as rigged. Given that the Muslim Brotherhood is the largest political coalition in Egypt, by far, free elections would likely produce a "difficult" result for US policy-makers.
The "situations" in Yemen and Egypt are unfolding amidst wider regional turmoil. Lebanon has gone from the Cedar Revolution to the installation of a Hezbollah-backed regime; the prime minister ceding power to the organization that stands accused of murdering his father. Lebanon will now align more closely with Iran, which continues to move forward with a nuclear weapons development program that many analysts believe is the single most de-stabilizing initiative in the region.
Should Iran succeed in their development of nuclear warheads, then a number of other countries in the region will argue that they have no choice but to do the same. As the Saudis paid for the development of Pakistan's nuclear capability, they would almost certainly demand immediate repayment (in the form of a weapon) and "go nuclear" shortly after Iran does. Egypt would likely follow. Etcetera.
Which leads to the the question that keeps US policy-makers bug-eyed at two in the morning: What impact will all these televised images of mass demonstrations and overturned governments have on the people of Pakistan?
Anti-American sentiment in Pakistan is dry kindling, to say the least. Drop a match on it and it could quickly become a conflagration. Today in Lahore, a US consulate official was taken into custody for killing two Pakistanis (in self defense, he said, which is almost certainly true). But it doesn't matter what's true. The larger truth is that the same roiling political discontent that is "live" on television in Tunisia and Egypt is percolating across Pakistan. If it were to go "live" in a fit of anti-American rage and lead to the collapse of the Pakistani government, an existing and operational nuclear weapons program would be in play.
All of this is what President Obama, Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton are thinking about right now. What they know, but can't say, is that their ability to influence what happens next across the wider Middle East is limited. Like everyone else, they will be watching the demonstrations in Egypt on TV tomorrow and holding their breath.
By. John Ellis