Much of the generation in their 40s and 50s tried to effect change, but first accepted the empty promises of the rulers that change was coming. When it did not, many grew politically apathetic.
The protests are a fire alarm that the promises are not going to work anymore, said Sawsan al-Shaer, a Bahraini columnist. But governments that have stuck around for 20 to 40 years are slow to realize that, she said.
“Now the sons are coming, the new generation, and they are saying, ‘I don’t care that my father agreed with you — I am asking for more, and I am asking for something else,’ ” Ms. Shaer said.
Most rulers have surrounded themselves with a tight coterie of advisers and security officers for so long that they believe the advice that just a few young people are knocking around outside and will tire in good time, she said, even after the fall of the presidents in Tunisia and Egypt.
“The rulers don’t realize there is a new generation who want a better job, who want to ask what is happening, where did you spend the money?” Ms. Shaer said. “My father did not ask. I want to ask.”
The growing population throughout the 3,175-mile zone from Tehran to Tangier, Morocco, has changed too much, analysts believe, for the old systems to work.
“There is a contradiction between educating a lot of your population and creating a white-collar middle class and then ruling with an iron hand,” said Juan R. Cole, a professor of Middle East studies at the University of Michigan.
The continued eruptions present a particular challenge to the United States. It is caught between broadly supporting democracy in the region and tolerating the stability guaranteed by despots, analysts said. In addition, its ability to influence events is particularly limited with foes like Iran.
President Obama’s administration was accused of waffling on Egypt, trying to please the protesters while not really pushing President Hosni Mubarak, a longtime ally of the United States, to leave. It faces a similar dilemma in Bahrain, a crucial base for the United States Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
“For decades, the U.S. sort of prioritized stability over democracy because of oil and Israel,” said Marwan Muasher, a former foreign minister of Jordan who is the head of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The current policy is not sustainable,” he said, but changing it toward so many countries at once will be neither easy nor quick.