GUY RAZ, host: There's a cartoon making the rounds on Facebook throughout the Arab world. It shows five familiar faces, three of them have large red Xs painted over them: Ben Ali of Tunisia, Mubarak of Egypt and, of course, Gadhafi of Libya. And in the cartoon, a man with a can of red paint, a brush, approaches two other photos: Bashar Assad of Syria and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen. The message is clear: These two are next.
Samer Shehata teaches Arab politics at Georgetown University, and he says Assad and Saleh are paying very close attention to events in Libya.
SAMER SHEHATA: The death of Gadhafi and the fall of the regime is clearly worrying to them, and there are thousands, if not millions of people who want a similar fate for Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Ali Abdullah Saleh. There had been protests with millions of people demonstrating for months now. And, of course, what's happened to Gadhafi has certainly energized the protesters. Another Arab despot has met his fate, someone who was in power tyrannizing Libyans since 1969. So incredibly, incredibly important.
RAZ: Samer Shehata, it occurred to me when I saw all those brutal, gruesome images of Gadhafi dead that those images are also being seen in Syria, right?
SHEHATA: I think they've seen those images on television. They've certainly seen those images on the Internet, and we have seen references in the protest that occurred afterwards to Mr. Gadhafi and his fate asking, is Bashar al-Assad and is Ali Abdullah Saleh next, or really when will their times come?
And if one were to put themselves in Assad's shoes in Syria, he's got really two options. He can either flee or crackdown even harder. Or, of course, he has another option, which is to either give up power, or to flee to Saudi Arabia or some other country, or really to withdraw the Syrian armed forces and engage in some kind of serious reform that'll produce a fundamentally different Syria with human rights and democracy and elections and so on.
I think that's unlikely, but certainly that option is there. And I think if Mr. Assad wants a fate that is not that of either Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Mr. Mubarak in a cage on trial in Egypt or Mr. Gadhafi brutally killed, then that would be the best option for him.
RAZ: It's been a remarkable year in the Arab world and North Africa, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya. Syria and Yemen now await their fate. What happens from here? I mean, are Arab societies fundamentally changed?
SHEHATA: Well, I think it is the case that there has been a fundamental political change. But I think what it shows really is it dispels the old claim that somehow the Arab world was exceptional, that somehow the Arab world was inimical to democracy or ideas of freedom and justice and so on. No. I think the whole world have seen that people from Tunisia, to Syria, to Yemen and elsewhere want to live in dignity, want freedom, do not want dictators ruling their lives for decades. I think that's what it shows, and I think there's no going back.
RAZ: Samer, the Arab Spring - the so-called Arab Spring uprisings throughout the Arab world have really captured the imagination of the American public, a lot of optimism about what can be in the Arab Middle East. Are you optimistic?
SHEHATA: I am optimistic in the medium and long-term. Where I'm a little bit less optimistic is in the short-term because there's no guarantee that the process of getting to fully consolidate a stable democracy is going to be an easy one.
RAZ: It's going to be messy.
SHEHATA: It's going to be very messy. And we're seeing that already in places like Egypt with the violence recently against Egyptian cops, or the somewhat confusing and large number of political parties that have emerged in Tunisia - they're holding elections now. So, certainly, it's not going to be a smooth road to democracy. But I think the era of individual tyrants being in power for decades - Moammar Gadhafi since 1969, Mr. Mubarak since 1981, Ali Abdullah Saleh since 1978 - I think that era is over, and I think that that type of politics is no longer acceptable, no longer even tenable in the Arab world in the future.
RAZ: That's Samer Shehata. He is a professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University, talking about the Arab Spring and the future of the region. Samer, thanks.
SHEHATA: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.