Egypt has said it's going to ban protests against the regime of Hosni Mubarak, the long-standing autocratic ruler of that country. The decision follows several days of tense demonstrations, which in turn came after the ousting of the leader of nearby Tunisia, amid public anger over rising prices and a lack of everyday freedoms.
Mr Mubarak, and other leaders in the Arab world, will doubtless have been left very alarmed by what went on earlier this month in Tunis. In the short-term they will do what they can to prevent a 'domino effect' of regimes falling across north Africa and the Middle East, of the kind we saw in Eastern Europe in 1989. The draconian restrictions on public gatherings are, the Egyptians hope, a way of doing that without resorting to violence, in a way which will allow the momentum of the Tunisia revolt to dissipate, easing the immediate threat to the Cairo regime.
However, what happened in Tunisia may have changed the long-term politics of the region forever. Rulers such as Mubarak have long been supported by western nations, and the US in particular, because they have been seen as strongmen. Better to have a stable leader who we find a bit disasteful, the rationale goes, than a regime packed by unpredictable Islamic fundamentalists.
If attempts to establish a more democratic system in Tunisia, with a government featuring politicials from all sides, prove successful, the argument that hardline Arab leaders are the only thing preventing the region sliding into the grip of extremists will lose currency. Mubarak and the rest might have to open up a bit to retain western support, and stay in power.