The collapse of the Tunisian regime in January and the resignation on 11 February of Hosni Mubarak as Egyptian head of state are not uniquely Middle East dramas. They echo events across the world of which the global downturn of 2008/09 was just one. Unpredictable volatility has outstripped the managerial capacity of the established order. Zine- elabedine Ben Ali and Mubarak are its latest victims. They are unlikely to be the last.

Technology that facilitates communication without the intermediation of the state or the corporation has shifted the balance of economic and political power in favour of the individual. New forces are at work that the status quo can’t counter and not just in the Arab world. There is, therefore, more than one reason for bosses and bureaucrats to tremble before the storm of change of which Egypt’s anti-government movement may in due course be seen as a small, preliminary blast.

Mubarak’s fall, nevertheless, has powerful implications for all those living in the Middle East and doing business with the region. The battle lines are forming between those demanding greater individual freedom and others who place economic and political stability above all other considerations. This is a new kind of divide that does not correspond with familiar ideological positions. Many modernising liberals within the Arab world dread the consequences of the spirit that emerged in Egypt on 25 January gaining traction elsewhere in the region. Conservative Islamists were on the barriers in Tahrir Square. Freedom means different things to different people and stability can look like tyranny. If you are confused, you are not the only one.

The schizophrenia within the Middle East is echoed internationally. The White House backed the demand for Mubarak to go at least partly because it feared resistance to change in Cairo would eventually lead to more dangerous later turbulence. A large dose of political reform now, it is hoped, will contribute to stability in Egypt and the Arab world in the long-term. Instability today is better than chaos tomorrow. Time will tell whether this new principle of America’s Middle East policy will find expression elsewhere in the region and with what effect. It could all go horribly wrong.

The thinking echoes a previous era in US policy in the region. The US backed the military coup that deposed King Farouk in 1952, financed riots that led to the fall of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, immediately recognised the republican government that seized power in North Yemen in 1962 and viewed Muammar Gaddafi benignly, at least initially. Saddam Hussein was an American beneficiary and agent, though an unreliable one, who only finally fell out of Washington’s favour when he ordered the invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

There was sense, but little sentimentality in America’s actions. They had two objectives. The first was to displace the UK as the principal foreign power in the Middle East. The second was to replace weak regimes with governments that would join the Cold War against the Soviet Union, make peace with Israel and, after the 1979 revolution, counter the influence of revolutionary Iran.

Realpolitik was often morally lamentable, but it served America’s interests in the Middle East for six decades. Its appeal in Washington, as Mubarak’s fall demonstrates, is fading. A leader who was regarded as a reliable ally and with a high degree of personal warmth by four US presidents was dished by the White House’s present incumbent for his failure to listen to his people, or at least the most vocal ones. America’s partners in the Middle East are justifiably uneasy. A precedent has been set.

A long war has begun within the region between freedom and stability that will be fought from Algiers to Tehran. It’s a conflict involving ideas not weapons where the distinction between friend and foe is unclear. It will divide nations and test Middle East leaders to the limits of their capabilities and beyond. Its outcome is uncertain. And it will demand a response within the region and elsewhere that history suggests may be beyond the competences of everyone.