(Photo: Reuters/Suhaib Salem)
According to Dr. Robert Bence, MCLA political science and public policy professor, conditions in the Middle East made 2011 the "perfect storm" for regime change.
Of the 22 nations in the Arab League, only two might be labeled democracies. But, after more than half a century of corrupt, authoritarian rule, why are challenges to the established order happening now?
"It's a demographic time bomb," explained Bence. Sixty 60 percent of people living in the Middle East are under age 30. Half of those individuals are between the ages of 15 and 29. By stark contrast, the region's leaders are older, most beginning their positions before many of their citizens were born.
In Tunisia, Ben Ali, who was born in 1936, has been president since 1987. In Egypt, Mubarak - who was born in 1929 - has been president since 1981. In Yemen, Saleh, who was born in 1946, has been president since 1990. In Bahrain, Khalifia, born in 1950, has been king since 1999. And, in Libya, Gaddafi, who was born in 1942, has been that country's leader since 1969.
At the same time, employment rates in those countries range from nearly 10 percent to 35 percent, and Middle Easterners spend a much larger percentage of their household income on food than Americans.
As revolts spread from one country to the next, "The contagion gets spread because we have a lot more devices to do it. There's the social media, Facebook and Twitter," Bence said. "There's Al Jazeera, who is extremely important here. And, to some extent, Wikileaks is also a contributor to disseminating information about regimes and about what may or may not need to be done about them. Also, information gets globalized, too. While certainly people inside those countries are socially active, they have a lot of support and encouragement and connections with friends and relatives and fellow country people in other parts of the world."
While he could not predict which leaderships would fall, Bence listed the regime types in order of their vulnerability:
1. Republics - Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Algeria, Palestinian Authority, Iraq
2. Ethnically/Religiously Divided - Yemen, Lebanon, Bahrain, Jordan
3. Monarchies - Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco
4. Theocracies - Saudi Arabia, Iran
Over the years, the U.S. has backed many of the aging, authoritarian leaders for a variety of reasons - because of oil and terrorism concerns. While not democratic, "At least they provide stability," Bence explained. "In essence, President Obama is a little bit paralyzed. 'Should I turn my back on 50 years of U.S. policy or cast my lot with whoever?'
"The U.S. has lost control, if we ever had that much," he continued. "There's not a whole lot we can do now, until things play out. The real danger is that this could spread to Saudi Arabia, which has 40 percent of the world's oil. I don't think it will, but that's a possibility. That's a key component of our economic future."
How will the situation impact the U.S. in the weeks and months ahead? Only time will tell, Bence said.
"I would assume that the price of oil would stay up for awhile. I think that it's not that these uprisings are anti-American based, but they're not going to produce any more support for primary U.S. concerns like Homeland Security. In fact, there's a bit of animosity toward the U.S. because these authoritative regimes often use U.S. military equipment and U.S. military-trained soldiers against their populations."