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Mid-East: Will there be a domino effect?

Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-12204971

28 January 2011

In the wake of the ousting of Tunisia's President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, observers have drawn parallels with other countries in the region.






There is speculation about a possible domino effect similar to the collapse of Communist governments around Eastern Europe in 1989.

In several countries of the Middle East and North Africa, youthful and rapidly growing populations face rising food prices, high unemployment and lack of political representation. Some are also ruled by aging autocrats facing succession issues.

Which are the countries involved, and what is the likelihood of real change?



Egypt

Egypt has many similarities with Tunisia - tough economic conditions, official corruption and little opportunity for its citizens to express their dissatisfaction with the political system. President Hosni Mubarak, 82, has an almost complete monopoly on power, has been in office for three decades and is seeking re-election this autumn.

In January, several cases of self-immolation were reported in Egypt, apparent attempts to mimic the actions of the young Tunisian, Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire in mid-December and died on 4 January, triggering the unrest which ultimately overthrew President Ben Ali.

Then, on 25 January, the deep frustration of ordinary Egyptians spilled over into the streets of Cairo. Protesters - many waving Tunisian as well as Egyptian flags - came out in numbers not seen since the bread riots of the 1970s. Opposition groups issued demands for President Mubarak to resign, and called for an end to poverty, corruption, unemployment and police abuses. Four people died in the clashes, one of them a policeman.

The next day, police again used tear gas against thousands of demonstrators in Cairo, and protesters in Suez set fire to a government building. A policeman and a protester were killed, and the interior ministry said 500 people had been arrested. The government also announced that public gatherings would no longer be tolerated.

The police have been taken unaware by the size and power of the demonstrations, says the BBC's Jon Leyne in Cairo.

But change will not come easily in Egypt - the country is about eight times the size of Tunisia, the people are on average less literate and educated, and less internet-savvy. The trade unions are not as powerful, and the powerful security apparatus of Mr Mubarak is well equipped and more experienced at quashing dissent.




Yemen

There have been several days of protests in Yemen - the Arab world's most impoverished nation, where nearly half of the population lives on less than $2 a day.

Youths and opposition groups have taken to the streets of the capital, Sanaa, and the southern city of Aden demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh - in power for nearly 32 years.

In an effort to defuse the unrest, Mr Saleh announced on 23 January that he had ordered income tax to be halved and instructed the government to control prices of basic commodities. He also denied allegations that he was planning to hand over power to his son, Ahmed.

The government also released 36 people jailed for participating in the unrest, including the prominent human rights activist, Tawakul Karman.

But at the same time, the president has increased the salaries of state employees and armed forces personnel - a step apparently meant to ensure their loyalty - and deployed riot police and soldiers in key areas.





Algeria

As the winter protests escalated in Tunisia, its western neighbour also saw large numbers of young people taking to the streets. As in Tunisia, the trigger appeared to be economic grievances - in particular sharp increases in the price of food.

A state of emergency has been in place in Algeria since 1992, and public demonstrations in the capital have been banned. There are regular impromptu protests elsewhere in the country, but in recent weeks these broke out simultaneously across Algeria for the first time, including in the capital, Algiers. There have been reports of self-immolations, too.

However, the protests have not escalated in the same way as in Tunisia, something that analysts have attributed to the relatively restrained response of the security forces, as well as the government's intervention to limit price rises.

Algeria's government has considerable wealth from the export of oil and gas and is trying to tackle social and economic complaints with a huge public spending programme. But grievances remain, including anger over unemployment, corruption, bureaucracy, and a lack of political reform.

Algeria's tumultuous recent history stands in stark contrast to Tunisia's. It had its own opening up of the political system in 1988, resulting in the loosening of restrictions on the media and multi-party elections. This in turn led to a bloody conflict between security forces and Islamist rebels.





Libya

"There is none better than Zine to govern Tunisia. Tunisia now lives in fear."

Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi's sharp reaction on Saturday to the overthrow of President Ben Ali would seem to reflect his own nervousness about a possible domino effect.

After 41 years in power, Col Gadaffi is the longest serving ruler in Africa and the Middle East, and also one of the most autocratic.

Protest of any kind is strictly prohibited, but even so there were reports of unrest over the weekend in the city of al-Bayda.

However, Libya has a much smaller population and huge oil wealth.




Jordon

Thousands staged protests across Jordan in a "day of rage" on Saturday in protest against rising food prices and unemployment. Some demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Samir Rifai.

The government had last week slashed prices on certain foods and fuels, but the protesters say more needs to be done to tackle poverty caused by inflation.

But Jordan is run by a royal family, and some sections of society are loyal to the monarchy. King Abdullah II, who acceded to the throne in 1999, himself appears so far to have escaped most of the wrath of the protesters.

And so far protests have been peaceful and there have been no arrests.




Morocco

Like Tunisia, Morocco has been facing economic problems and allegations of corruption in ruling circles.

Morocco's reputation was damaged after Wikileaks revealed allegations of increased corruption, in particular the royal family's business affairs and the "appalling greed" of people close to King Mohammed VI.

Wikileaks cables from the US embassy in Tunis have cited similar problems in President Ben Ali's inner circle.

But Morocco, like Egypt and Algeria, does allow limited freedom of expression and has so far been able to contain protests.

Like Jordan it is a monarchy with strong support among sections of the public.


Egypt protesters step up pressure

31 January 2011

The events of the last week will have profound consequences for the Middle East for years to come. Egypt's role in the region is going to change.


President Hosni Mubarak has been the central pillar of the alliance between Western powers and authoritarian Arab leaders and without him it may not be sustainable.

He has been the only Arab leader the Israelis trusted. Their biggest fear is that without him their cold - but so far resilient - peace with Egypt will be in danger.

The president has been the West's necessary man in the Middle East for 30 years.

That is why Egypt has continued to receive vast amounts of American aid, as well as political support from Britain and other European countries - despite a deplorable human rights record, crooked elections, the suppression of virtually all organised political opposition and rampant corruption.

Those are some of the reasons why tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets.


Egypt's crisis
Most populous Arab nation, with 84.5 million inhabitants
Authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak has ruled for 30 years
Protests against corruption, lack of democracy, inflation, unemployment
Triggered by overthrow of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia



Succession question

His allies were already planning for what would come next, because he is 82.

But for them the easiest assumption was that he would be able to bequeath the Egyptian system largely intact to a chosen successor. Favoured names were his son Gamal, or the intelligence chief General Omar Suleiman.

The crowds on the streets have almost as much contempt for Gamal Mubarak as they have for his father.

Gen Suleiman has been the second most powerful man in Egypt for years, the main link with the Americans, the Israelis and the Saudis.

In the eyes of the protesters though, he has been tainted by agreeing to become a vital part of President Mubarak's survival plan.

The popular uprising makes it unlikely that the current system will survive President Mubarak.

Optimistic Egyptians say free elections, if they ever happen, would produce a vibrant democracy.

Pessimists say that the removal of the police state would lead to chaos - which would be exploited by Egypt's jihadi groups. These have been suppressed ruthlessly by the Mubarak regime.

The country's only properly organised mass political movement outside the ruling party is the Muslim Brotherhood, and it would do very well in any free election.

Unlike the jihadis, it does not believe it is at war with the West. It is conservative, moderate and non-violent. But it is highly critical of Western policy in the Middle East.

(Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12325128)