This all started over a fruit cart in Tunisa.
A poor man, struggling to earn some money for his family and for his sisters' educations, unable to get any other work other than selling fruit in the marketplace. Tunisian economy is pretty rough: rampant unemployment, and political corruption from the top on down where only the powerful get jobs.
Like in a lot of places, you need a permit to sell in the marketplace. Mohamed Bouazizi couldn't afford either the permit nor the bribes that corrupt local police wanted, and so they kept shutting him down. On Dec. 17th 2010, they did more than that: they humiliated him. It drove him to an act of self-immolation: burning himself in front of the government offices that denied him any justice or recourse (He died early January). To a nation seething under the 23-year rule of a corrupt President-for-life, it was the final straw.
It took a few days, and almost no international notice (outside of the social media sources Twitter, Facebook and others), but the Tunisians overthrew the dictator and are currently in the throes of rebuilding a nation. God help them and may they succeed in making a more open, less corrupt Tunisa work.
But once President Ben Ali fled to exile, the rest of the Arab world... and the rest of the world period... sat up and took notice. Because if there's one thing about politics in the Middle East... it's that a lot of the nations are one-person, one-party places. Places like Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Jordan, Oman, Saudi Arabia... I'd mention Iran, but you might notice they've had their own uprising attempt a few years ago and their government is most likely keeping all this stuff off their news as much as possible...
The American understanding of the Middle East has been "there are guys who side with us and those who don't," with our key allies being Israel (with our alliance part of the political turmoil in the Middle East to begin with, and that would take a whole book to discuss), Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Turkey is democratic and for the most part solid allies (just don't talk about the Kurds or Armenians). But it's the protests in Egypt and Saudi Arabia that are gaining U.S. attention... and our concerns.
Especially as the Egyptian protests ratchet up and as President Mubarak is doing what he can to clamp down.
The problem is Islamic fundamentalism. Primarily the reactionary elements that oppose Westernized culture (the openness of sex, vulgarity, and jazz/blues/rap/country music) and values (gender equality). They also have a few issues with Israel (basically its right to even exist), and a few geopolitical extremists who are still upset about how the spread of Islam stopped at the Spanish and Bosnian borders.
Most of our allies in the Arab world are led by Westernized Muslims (that is, they're willing to do business with us and allow American tourists to take snapshots of everybody). Problem is, those nations have small but very-well-organized extremist terror groups who would love nothing more than to blow everybody up, drive out the non-Muslims, take over their governments, install religious law (based on a twisted reading of the Quran, and not on actual justice or human rights), and pretty much become as corrupt as the one-party rulers they're trying to throw out (SEE Iran 1979 to now). As a result, those American allies tended to rule by fiat, becoming dictators and staging rigging elections to maintain the status quo. You get extremes at both ends, with the majority population screwed by both sides. It's been quiet until now: the global economic meltdown of the last decade has hurt, with a lot of Arab nations suffering high unemployment and food prices inflation. Now, the masses of the Middle East are out of money and beginning to starve: they have nothing to lose if they take to the streets...
In Tunisa, the ruling party was relatively successful in exiling their extremists, which was why U.S. interests in what happened there were meager. And why, even with all the chaos ongoing there, Tunisa is viewed as gaining some moderate stability soon. But Egypt is a different story: they have groups like the Muslim Brotherhood (who openly renounce violence but clearly oppose womens' rights and want to place Egypt under Sharia law), and worse groups like Islamic Jihad with ties to Al-Qaeda. If the protests do succeed in ousting Mubarak, the fear is (SEE AGAIN Iran 1979 to now) that the extremists will be the only organized group to take over Egypt and start their reign of terror.
An Islam extremist Egypt will certainly break all treaties with Israel, their agreements having been the keystone to Middle East peace efforts over the last 30 years. They'd also expel most of the tourists, arrest every Coptic, and place their women in Third-Class status (think Taliban but in hotter climes). What's worse - Iran fell to extremists in 1979 but they were Shiite by faith, and they are a minority of Muslim followers and thus had little influence across the Islam world: Egypt is mostly Sunni, and if they fall to extremists the Sunni extremists in other nations will have a rallying cry and a base of support.
All of the rising protests in the Middle East should bring concerns to the rest of the world. If even one of these nations - Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, Saudi Arabia - falls to an extremist government, no matter if the others become solid democracies they will still have a poisonous asp sitting in their midst looking to spread their violent jihad everywhere they think their faith should be (which starts with their Sunni neighbors, then every nation ever touched by Muslim rule, then the rest of the world).
There's little the United States can do with regards to these uprisings: like the recent Iranian protests, a heavy U.S. presence will do the exact opposite of what our nation would like. We'd like a pro-Western Iran to have risen from the anger of the Green Revolution of 2009... but any U.S. public support would have been used by the corrupt regime to justify their crackdown of "foreign-influenced rioters". We'd like a pro-Western Egypt (and Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, and Algeria) to remain ticking along like a reliable clock, but we can neither public upbraid Mubarak to have him open up his government (which would humiliate and weaken him), nor back any violent crackdowns that would keep the extremists from power (but would also harm a ton of honest Egyptians in the process).
The best we can do is hope that saner heads remain in control of the uprisings. That the extremists are viewed as obstacles and not allies by the protesters. That we do get to see genuine democratic nations in the Middle East when this is all over. And that as few people as possible are harmed in the chaos befalling their nations. There's been too many deaths already...
Best we can do is pray.