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UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Hundreds of thousands of protesters have thronged public squares; slogans have been chanted, banners waved and security forces cowed into inaction; the reviled despot has stepped down or fled abroad.
It's a question not just for Egyptians who toppled President Hosni Mubarak on Friday. It has confronted those behind people's revolutions that have overthrown tyrannical regimes in dozens of countries in recent decades.
The euphoria seldom lasts long. It is replaced by the challenge of building a fair and democratic society and meeting the expectations of supporters who may be motivated as much by economic hardship as by love of political freedom.
Studies show a decidedly mixed record of long-term success for popular uprisings like those that have just convulsed the Arab states of Egypt and Tunisia.
"Many transitions from authoritarian rule do not lead to freedom," said a 2005 report by Washington-based human rights group Freedom House, entitled "How Freedom is Won: From Civic Resistance to Durable Democracy."
"The opportunity for freedom after a political opening represented by the fall of an authoritarian (leader) is by itself not a guarantee of an optimal outcome for freedom in the long term."
Of 67 countries the report looked at where there had been transitions from autocratic rule over the preceding generation, 35 were "free," 23 were "partly free" and nine were "not free" at the time of publication, it said.
Factors likely to contribute to lasting democracy included a strong, cohesive civic coalition before the change, and pursuit of nonviolent tactics by the opposition, it said.
Conversely, analysts say, chances of building a stable democracy can be damaged if the opposition cuts a deal with security forces to overthrow a ruler -- as some suspect might have happened in Egypt.
Daniel Serwer, a former U.S. State Department official, said that in Serbia, demonstrators promised security services they would not be held accountable for past actions if they helped oust Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.
"That deal has plagued Serbia's democratic transition, which nevertheless has gone a long way in the right direction," said Serwer, now with the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
"The Egyptians are likely to face a similar problem: they have relied on the armed forces to evict Mubarak. The question now will be whether the armed forces will permit a thorough going revolution," he added.
Some analysts believe chances of lasting change are boosted if a country has at least some history of democracy.
This was the case with the Philippines, where dictator Ferdinand Marcos, toppled by mass unrest in 1986, had started off as elected president; and with most of the Warsaw Pact states that threw off Soviet-led communist rule in 1989 and later joined the European Union.
Serious violence erupted in only one -- Romania.
The exception that proves the rule among the European states of the former Soviet bloc is Belarus, a country with its own language but little history as an independent nation and long dominated by Moscow.
While the neighboring Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, geographically and culturally close to Scandinavia, are held up as models of democratization, Belarus' president since 1994, Alexander Lukashenko, has been branded by Western leaders as Europe's last dictator.
Iran had been ruled by monarchs until it ousted the last shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in 1979 in an Islamic revolution. By coincidence, the royal regime fell on Feb. 11, exactly 32 years before Mubarak was ejected in Egypt.
With violence employed by both sides in Iran, it fell into Freedom House's category of countries at risk of forfeiting their democratic gains. Islamic moderates were soon elbowed aside by hardliners to form a theocratic state effectively led by unelected clerics.
But David Cortright of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame, Indiana, says even Iran had democratic elections -- at least until 2009, when opposition demonstrators charged that a presidential poll was rigged.
Editing by Todd Eastham