There have always been significant differences in the circumstances of the countries affected. But they have much in common as well: young populations, lack of opportunities, authoritarian political systems, corruption and a lack of accountability by governments that have been tolerated by the west because of oil, strategic interests, fear of Islamists or attitudes to Israel.
Reactions to the opening session of Hosni Mubarak’s trial in Cairo were a reminder that many across the region hope to see their own rulers brought to account. But Egypt’s own future looks deeply uncertain, with the military still firmly in control and a new constitution yet to be written.
There are lots of interesting and important questions worth asking. But there are few easy or clear-cut answers.
Will other Arab autocrats end up in the dock? Syria’s Bashar al-Assad seems intent on using all-out repression to save his regime – and accuses his enemies of fomenting sectarian violence. Now even ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia, which tolerates little dissent at home, has spoken out against Assad. Its Gulf neighbours have done the same even as they work to help Sunni-ruled Bahrain to contain Shia unrest that they blame – though with little evidence – on Iran. Unlike the Syrian president, King Abdullah has not killed 2,000 of his own people in the past five months – but he has tried to buy off dissent. So double standards are part of the story too.
Libya looks like a special case. It is remote from the rest of the Arab world with a deeply unpopular leader. Nato’s intervention is proving far from decisive while the Benghazi-based opposition looks ineffective both as a military force and a future government.
Opinions are deeply divided over the western response. Is Nato’s action a laudable example of the "responsibility to protect" – whose absence led to the slaughter of thousands Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s? Or was it a mistake to get involved in someone else’s civil war – however odious the regime. Is it simply hypocrisy to act in Libya and leave Syria alone? And what about Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world?
Do western oil interests mean that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states will remain exceptions to hopes for change? Or is it still possible that the Arab spring will push them toward peaceful reforms? What role should the US and other western countries be playing?
What about the Palestinians – still stateless and struggling? Some argue that this 21st century Arab awakening has helped heal the bitter rift between the Islamists of Hamas and the secular nationalists of Fatah. Now there is a new wrangle over the wisdom of asking the UN to recognise an independent Palestine at the UN general assembly next month. How will Israel react if that happens? And how different might the Middle East and north Africa look by the spring of 2012?