The Middle East is boiling. Unprecedented popular uprisings have rocked a number of countries, especially the three where I served as U.S. ambassador -- Tunisia, Egypt, and Bahrain. Demonstrators, taking to the streets to protest their dismal living conditions, refused to be beaten back, swelling until the autocratic presidents in Tunisia and Egypt were driven from power. As of this writing, the family-run government in Bahrain is fighting back, hoping its security forces and hold on power will be strong enough to outlast the protests. The uprisings in the three countries have had many similarities, but there have also been significant differences. All three face rising unemployment as a result of the global recession. They were experiencing growing gaps between rich and poor, stifled free speech, repression of the opposition, widespread corruption, and continuing autocratic control behind a veneer of democratic openings.

Tunisia had not seemed particularly shaky. It was a country that seemed to be doing many things right: universal education for men and women, low military spending, and positive economic growth. A large middle class was developing, and the country had become a popular tourist destination for Europeans. The government was authoritarian but also determinedly secular and pro-Western. The cracks, however, were larger than anyone thought: President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali had carefully hidden the extent to which illness had weakened his control of the government; his ties with other centers of power, such as the military and police, had withered; and corruption within his family had become more flagrant.

Although the percentage of youth looking for work was lower than in neighboring countries, more were university graduates with higher expectations. Their frustration and anger became unbearable. The desperate act of one of them, Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire in front of a police station in a sad town in Tunisia’s interior, became the symbol and catalyzing spark for the whole generation. His act of self-immolation might have passed unnoticed, but it was captured on a cell-phone camera, and soon the rest of Tunisia -- and the whole world -- knew.

Technology, therefore, played a role, as did the intrepid Arabic news channel Al Jazeera, whose reporters blended in with the demonstrators and sent out regular reports to electrifying effect. Activists used Twitter and Facebook to mobilize street demonstrations and spread warnings on police tactics and concentrations. WikiLeaks, moreover, had weeks earlier published the U.S. ambassador’s confidential reports of corruption within the president’s family. These had the effect of turning gossip and rumor into fact and fueling popular anger. In this case, then, I would argue that some benefits have been gained: a dictator has fallen, and reporting from U.S. embassies has gained new credibility. Still, foreign leaders will be less candid with American diplomats in the future.

Tunisia’s small but professional army had always stayed out of politics. When Ben Ali ordered it to reinforce the security police in putting down the riots, the army refused to deploy or fire on fellow citizens. The United States, to its credit, was ahead of Arab and European governments in expressing unambiguous support for the protests, quickly shifting from calling for calm to recognizing the legitimacy of demonstrators’ demands. In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama stated, “Tonight, let us be clear: the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia and supports the democratic aspirations of all peoples.” His words both affirmed and encouraged the protesters.

Sparked by coverage of Tunisians’ success in ousting their dictator, Egyptians poured into the streets of all of the country’s major cities, demanding that President Hosni Mubarak, 82 and pharaoh for 30 years, step down. The specter of another 30 years under his son added to their anger. Still, the regime could not have been expected to collapse as easily as Tunisia’s had, and indeed, it did not. Mubarak was not as alone and isolated as Ben Ali, and his family was not so visibly rapacious. He was from and of the armed forces, the largest and most cohesive institution in Egypt, and part of the proud military tradition that overthrew King Farouk, ended British colonial influence, and brought independence under Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar el-Sadat, and Mubarak.

Senior military officers initially stood with him, quietly supporting his transfer of governing power to his newly appointed vice president and longtime confidant, Omar Suleiman. But when strong-arm tactics by security irregulars failed to suppress the massive demonstrations in Tahrir Square, the senior officer corps, who regarded themselves foremost as guardians of the first Egyptian revolution, sent Mubarak into retirement. Egypt is now undergoing two transitions: the first from Mubarak to a more inclusive government; the second from direct military rule to a diluted but still powerful military influence in Egyptian affairs.

Finding the right strategy in Egypt has been a more delicate and complicated task for the United States than in the Tunisian case. Whereas U.S. interests in Tunisia are limited, U.S. interests in Egypt are vast and include maintaining the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel as the guarantee against another major war in the Middle East; preserving access to the lines of communication across Egypt, which are the major supply routes for U.S. forces in Iraq, the Gulf, and farther east; keeping the oil transit routes open through the Suez Canal and the SuMed pipeline; continuing cooperation against al Qaeda and other terrorist groups; and encouraging moderate forces within the region. Of great psychological importance is also having a secular, non-Islamist government in power in Egypt, the cultural capital and center of gravity of the Arab world.

The Obama administration has had to adapt its policy to changing conditions on the ground, combining behind-the-scenes contact with megaphone diplomacy, all the while working in Washington’s partisan atmosphere and dealing with alarmed Middle Eastern capitals. It has had to protect its substantial interests while staying on the right side of history. It is too soon to know whether a democratic Egyptian regime, committed to a moderate foreign policy, will emerge. I believe, however, that the president’s deft handling of the Egyptian crisis so far has strengthened his foreign affairs record. For those who worry that U.S. influence in the region is in free fall, it is worth noting that the only outside country that matters in the Egyptian drama -- for the government, for the transition leaders, and for most of the protesters -- is the United States.

As Tunisia cooled and Egyptian smoldered, Bahrain -- facing many of the same social and economic problems of the other two -- ignited. The Sunni Khalifa dynasty, headed by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, is fighting an uprising, stoked by the island nation’s Shia majority, which is demanding that a true constitutional monarchy replace the current government. Hamad is supported by an oligarchy of Sunni and Shiite business interests, but he can give into Shia demands only so much without his family running the risk of being totally swept away by a Shia-dominated government. With its survival at stake, the regime has already offered a dialogue between the opposition and the crown prince, while at the same time promising to use force to quell protests if necessary. The security forces, composed largely of South Asian mercenaries and backed by a Sunni-led army, will not have the same reluctance to fire on citizen demonstrators as the Tunisian and Egyptian militaries. Moreover, neighboring monarchies, particularly Saudi Arabia, with its own restive Shia population in the Eastern Province, see Bahrain’s current government as their first line of defense against unrest in their own countries and may try to help Hamad retain control.

Much has been made of Bahrain being home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet as the reason why the United States has apparently been reluctant to back the protesters as readily as it did in Tunisia. In fact, the United States has host-nation support agreements with all the Gulf states; Bahrain does not stand out in that regard. It has hosted a U.S. naval presence since the late 1940s. At any rate, Obama has called on Bahrain’s leaders to forswear violence, respect the people’s right to protest, and hasten reforms. It appears that the administration will more or less follow its same playbook as for Egypt.

The noise and sweep of mass demonstrations and the fall of autocrats are what has made headlines, but the hard work of transitioning to more open political systems is equally important. This process is under way in Tunisia and Egypt. In Tunisia, a civilian transitional government is in charge. In Egypt, the military high command is supervising both the transitional government and the reform process. In Bahrain and elsewhere where protest movements have sprung up, the outcome is still uncertain. This, however, is a threshold moment across the entire region. Governments old and new will henceforth be obliged to pay more attention to public opinion, be more responsive to citizens’ aspirations, and allow greater participation in national decision-making.

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  • ROBERT H. PELLETREAU is former United States Ambassador to Bahrain (1979-80), Tunisia (1987-91), and Egypt (1991-93). From 1994 to 1997, he was Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs.
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