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Page last updated at 07:24 GMT, Tuesday, 31 May 2011 08:24 UK
The uncertain Arab summer

Youths watch from the banks of The Nile as the sun sets

As he leaves the Middle East after presenting the Today programme from Cairo, James Naughtie reflects on the precarious future of the Arab Spring.

It is quite hard to imagine what it is really like to live in a state where it is the police who run the show.

I heard a good one in Cairo the other day. The censored version of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction still had some violence, but the Egyptian official with the blue pencil had reordered the scenes to make them chronological - presumably on the grounds that disorder on the screen might encourage chaos all over the place.

Bahraini coin

Well, chaos came anyway. It made me wonder if the Bahraini authorities will help themselves by withdrawing from circulation the coin that bore the image of the Pearl Roundabout in the main city, Manama, which was the gathering point for the protesters before the tanks moved in.

When you panic about the coinage, surely your slip is showing.

Even a short journey here, enlivened by memories of the scenes in Tahrir Square four months ago, is exhilarating - because of the uncertainty.

That is not to make light of the human problems - the poverty that is a huge problem in Egypt, the violence that is certainly being visited in people who determined to keep protesting in Bahrain, many other things - it is just to admit that whatever is going to happen to some countries here it does open a new chapter, maybe a new book.


You hear it everywhere you turn. People are starting to write a new story: look at Egypt and Israel with the Gaza crossing open (unwelcome though that is to the Israeli government) - the argument is going to change.

Look at Syria, where the government cannot put out the fires that are crackling in several cities.

Think of Bahrain, where two months ago the government, moved into the demonstrations in what you might call a traditional way, but where later this week we will find out if the Crown Prince (the reforming figure in the ruling family) can get political talks going. That is the subject of intense interest in London and Washington.

Mind you, I was thinking about this on a terrace on the banks of the Nile and across the river I could see two burnt-out buildings, the remnants of Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party headquarters, sacked by the protesters in January.

Downtown Cairo is visible behind the Great Pyramid of Cheops
The Pyramid of Cheops look out over a changing nation

You realize how far they have to go, and that it will go in fits and starts. Egypt, population 85 million, chosen recipient of billions in Western help, has institutions to build on. Yemen, population a quarter, tribal and divided, will be a different story.

Someone put it to me that it would become the official headquarters of al Qaeda, and that is all.

We don't know how the Islamist movement will develop, where they will wax and wane. Above all we cannot tell how the next Middle East generation - caricatured now as the Facebook revolutionaries - will write the story.

Though they will. The median age in Yemen is 17, in Syria 22, in Egypt 24. In Europe populations are ageing. Not here.

There will be good times and bad times around the corner. And maybe there is only one thing as difficult as being an Egyptian censor before the revolution, or a secret policeman in any one of a dozen countries in the region now, and that is sitting in a foreign ministry in London or Washington or Paris and being asked to write a paper for tomorrow morning, with the title What Happens Next?

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