|As protests break out across the Middle East and North Africa, many experts are speculating that the Arab world has reached a tipping point and that 2011 may well be the Arab world’s 1848, which saw popular uprisings sweep across Europe. — Glen Johnson|
|As protests break out across the Middle East and North Africa, many experts are speculating that the Arab world has reached a tipping point and that 2011 may well be the Arab world’s 1848, which saw popular uprisings sweep across Europe.
Most countries in the region share the same problems: disempowered citizens living under largely unaccountable regimes that offer little in terms of civil liberties, while neoliberal economic programs have made it increasingly difficult for citizens to meet their basic needs. At the same time, internal dynamics mean the success of Tunis and Cairo may not be replicated elsewhere. Egypt Today takes a quick look at the rest of the ‘dominoes’ and how likely they are to fall.
Anti-Gaddafi protests in Libya started Februray 15, and toward the end of the month there were reports that the military forces and weaponry were being used to quash the uprising. A number of Libyan diplomats overseas and high-ranking government officials in the country have reportedly resigned in protest. While observers are predicting that this is the beginning of the end for Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, the flamboyant leader has refused to make any concessions. In a February 22 speech, Gaddafi vowed to “die as a martyr,” foreboding continued bloodshed.
At press time, Bahrain was in the midst of its own version of political unrest, with protesters occupying Manama’s Pearl Square, and police using tear gas and reportedly live ammunition to disperse the predominantly Shi’a protesters. The Shi’a majority initially demanded greater political representation in a system dominated by the Sunni monarchy, but after several people died in clashes with the police, the protesters have called for the overthrow of the monarchy. The government has made limited concessions, including the release of political prisoners, but protesters have continued to demonstrate at Pearl Square.
Experienced, ruthless and powerful, Algeria’s security apparatus is in an entirely different league to those of Egypt and Tunisia. As such, a full-scale uprising would almost certainly be dealt with harshly.
Despite a government ban on protests, the resource-rich country has had previous popular uprisings, notably in 1988 when protests brought about the collapse of one-party rule. Subsequent elections were cancelled inchoate by, essentially, a military coup that blocked the ascension of the Islamic Salvation Front. The country descended into a bitter and murky civil war and the military has been in power ever since.
Now, thousands of Algerians are back on the streets calling for better living standards, an end to corruption and for President Abdelaziz Boutefika to step down; indeed, for the end of the military regime.
Jeremy Keenan, research associate at the University of London, says the Algerian regime would be one of the toughest to dislodge in the Middle East and North Africa. “There is not the rapport between the army and the people that we see in Egypt,” he says. “The security apparatus is much more sophisticated than in Egypt or Tunisia. It is trained in repression and is absolutely ruthless and experienced — a terrifying force. Political opposition has been fractured and fragmented by the regime.”
As with Egypt, whether or not Algerians could overcome their fear of the regime will determine the extent to which any potential protests escalate. Keenan says, “Some Algerians feel a bloody stage is needed and necessary to remove the regime. A lot of people fear that they might have to go through this.”
At press time, Algiers had announced the state’s Emergency Law, in place for 20 years, had been lifted — a clear concession to protesters.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has ruled for more than 40 years: North Yemen from 1978– 1990 and Yemen from 1990 to the present day. His ability to coopt, juggle and blatantly buy off Yemen’s fractured tribal constituency, while shoring up support within a bloated and barely functioning civil service has ensured his survival.
Yemen’s future appears bleak. The country’s groundwater aquifers are being depleted at an alarming rate, unemployment hovers around the 40 percent mark, around half of children under five are malnourished and only 28 percent of women are literate. The government, notorious for its corruption, draws most of its revenue from oil, yet oil production is expected to drop to zero by 2017 — the same time the water crisis is expected to reach its apex.
Dissatisfaction with the government is noticeable but seemingly has not yet gelled into a cohesive and widespread movement capable of forcing Saleh out early, despite thousands recently taking to the streets — until midday anyway, when the promise of the narcotic leaf qat lured people home.
In a February 4 editorial in The New York Times, Victoria Clark, author of “Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes,” notes that Saleh has largely preempted protesters’ demands by promising not to seek another term in office and announcing that his son Ahmed would not succeed him. That may not be enough. In six months, political discontent may well be supplanted by economic unrest when “revenues from his two main sources — Saudi aid and minor oil exports — will not be enough to foot the civil service wage bill or the diesel and food subsidies,” Clark wrote. “Then he will not be worrying about polite opposition politicians but more likely about bread-rioters, hungry and unmanageable, exploding into violence.”
One word: Mukhabarat. The intelligence service should pretty much torpedo any talk of the Jasmine Revolution spreading to Syria. Previous uprisings in Syria, notably in the town of Hama in 1982, were ruthlessly quashed by the regime. Joshua Landis, director of the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies, believes Syria is not ripe for revolution. “It is an ethnically and religiously divided society like Lebanon and Iraq,” he says. “Many Syrians believe that regime change may well usher in real violence, as it did in Lebanon or Iraq.”
Add to that is the relative popularity of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad among Syria’s youth. Miriam, an English teacher from Aleppo who did not want her last name identified, says: “He is young. He has a vision for our future and a plan for our country.”
Critics in Syria complain about corruption, lack of rights and unemployment, to say nothing of the country’s dismal human rights record — giving weight to the view that any uprising would be bloody.
Popular protest to date has drawn only small numbers, with one candlelit vigil forcefully dispersed by men in plain clothes. However, according to Landis, while “the people of the Mashreq are fearful of more violence and instability [...] it is only a matter of time. All Arabs are hungry for dignity and a role in their own governance.”
In Jordan, discontent has been boiling over, expressing itself in popular protest. Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets, calling for more efforts to counter unemployment, an end to corruption and the right to elect the prime minister. For all that, Jordanians have not been calling for regime change.
Spend a few minutes chatting to Jordanians and a few things become clear: People are frustrated with low wages and rising prices, angry with the Parliament, and they revere King Abdullah II, or at least say so.
According to Ziad Abu-Rish, co-editor of the Arab studies e-zine Jadaliyya, it is possible but not very likely that Jordan will go down the Tunisian and Egyptian path. “The level of polarization between the regime and the general population in Jordan has not reached the zero-sum game it reached in Egypt and Tunisia.”
However, protesters’ economic and political concerns are still very real, he adds. “The fact that Jordanians are not choosing revolution, openly calling for the abolition of the Monarchy or turning out in significantly large numbers is not the same as them not wanting change that is real and meaningful.”
Iran, seemingly reinvigorated by events in Tunis and Cairo, witnessed street protests reminiscent of its post-election period in 2009. The protesters are calling for an end to the regime — a partial continuation of their demands during 2009 protests. The regime has responded in the traditional authoritarian manner, placing dissenters under house arrest and banning media organizations from covering events.
— Glen Johnson