Arab Leaders Trying to Keep Heads Above Waves of Mideast Protests

Leaders in Jordan, Yemen, Syria hoping moves help defuse anger.

Feb. 1, 2011— -- As popular protests spread from Egypt and Tunisia to Jordan, Yemen and beyond, governments in those countries -- most of them U.S. allies -- are fighting to stay ahead of the curve and stay in power.

Jordan's King Abdullah dissolved his government today and appointed a new prime minister, giving it a mandate, according to an advisor to the king, for "effective, tangible and real political reform."

The reform is intended to include a new election law encouraging a multi-party system, but does not set a date for elections.

Striking a hopeful tone despite the growing popular unrest inside Jordan and around the region, advisor to King Abdullah and now former deputy prime minister Ayman Safadi told ABC News, "King Abdullah is the strongest ally for reform. With Tunisia and Egypt, there is a new dynamic in the region. To the extent which it applies depends on the political environment in each country. The king is turning a crisis into an opportunity."

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has appointed a vice president and instructed him to negotiate with the opposition.

Tunisia's interim government, led by Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, reshuffled the cabinet removing some key figures associated with the ousted former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. But Tunisia is struggling to contain insistent protests and sporadic violence.

In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh increased wages and cut income taxes this week, and today announced that will address a special meeting of the consultative council, hoping to take some of the steam out of a "day of rage" planned for Thursday.

The question is: will those moves satisfy the opposition growing in confidence and ambitions?

In Egypt, the answer appears to be a resounding no. Protesters there are calling for nothing less than Mubarak's departure. In Yemen, the opposition says it is "too late" for dialogue. In Tunisia, they're calling for the removal of all senior officials tied to the ousted president.

For Complete Coverage of the Crisis in Egypt, Featuring Exclusive Reporting From Christiane Amanpour, Click Here

In Jordan, it remains to be seen whether a new government announced today will satisfy the thousands demonstrating in six cities there.

Meanwhile, Syria is bracing itself for its own unrest, as online organizers there take inspiration from Egypt and Syria and are calling for a "day of rage" in Damascus this week.

These youth-led, technology-driven "Facebook revolutions" have leap-frogged far older and seemingly better-organized opposition groups who've fought – and failed – for decades to challenge their governments. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was a late arrival at this current protests.

While protests have engulfed the Arab street before, the targets have most often been outsiders, usually the U.S. and Israel. Now they have a new target: their own governments.

Israel Watches Its Arab Allies Fight for Survival

Robert Danin, the Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, calls these events " new and unprecedented".

"We've seen demonstrations in the Middle East throughout the twentieth century. That part is not new," Danin said in an interview with "What we're seeing that is new is that demonstrations are taking place in response to local conditions and problems that are then being fueled by, and inspired by, what is happening elsewhere in the region."

However, America's historical role in these countries is very much relevant. The principal negative factor to U.S. credibility among Muslims in the region – something President Obama set out to revamp and revitalize – has been its very support for leaders like Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah.

At his 2009 speech in Cairo, the president said, "I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere."

Muslims welcomed the words but told me, as they so often have, that actions speak louder than words. That is, they want America to support democracy, not just talk it up.

While U.S. officials now attempt to walk a fine line between backing democratic change and not abandoning old friends, for many Muslims, it's too late for U.S. officials to say anything of real value. As one Egyptian democracy activist told me over the weekend, "The U.S. is paying the piper for supporting the dictator Mubarak."

Beyond the U.S., one of the biggest losers from the upheaval could be the U.S.'s closest ally in the region, Israel.

Egypt's fall – and in a nightmare scenario for U.S. and Israeli leaders, Jordan's as well – would upend virtually all of Israel's peace and national security priorities.

Peace today in the region – and peace in the future with the Palestinians – depends on alliances with its neighbors Egypt and Jordan. Israel's national security also depends on them. Israel depends on Egypt providing a southern front against Hamas in Gaza. More troubling for Israel, Hamas is close to the Egypt's largest organized opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Ripples From Tunisia Buffet Mideast

And a Palestinian state in the West Bank would be an almost unthinkable prospect for many Israelis with an unfriendly government in Jordan.

More broadly, with Israel's relations with Turkey damaged since the Israeli assault on the Gaza flotilla, Israel could, in a worst case, find itself with no reliable Arab ally.