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IDSA COMMENT

After Tunisia and Egypt: The mood in the Arab streets and palaces

February 10, 2011

The recent Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia and uprising Egypt has shaken up the Arab world. While, on the one hand, it has raised hopes among the people, on the other hand, it has alarmed the undemocratic and authoritarian rulers of the region. The echoes of the protests of Tunisia and Egypt have already been felt in the streets of some of the neighbouring countries where a large number of people have taken to the streets against their rulers. The reverberations symbolise deep seated frustration among the people under authoritarian rule compounded by corruption, inequality, unemployment, and rising prices and devoid of any noteworthy political rights.

Several protesters have come out into the streets in Jordan, Yemen, Algeria, Libya and Iraq against these phenomena demanding greater economic and political reforms. Fearing the Tunisia and Egypt style incidents happening in their countries, the usually despotic Arab rulers, this time, have taken the demands of the people seriously and have stepped in immediately to address their concerns. The apprehension of these rulers is clearly visible in the economic and political decisions taken by them in the face of developments in their own countries and in their neighbourhood.

Algeria has announced measures to check rising prices of basic commodities. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has announced that he would not seek to extend his presidential term after 2013 and bring his son Ahmed Ali Saleh to power. He also postponed the parliamentary elections, which were expected to take place this April. In order to pacify the demonstrating students, he has announced measures to absorb 25 percent of the college students in government institutions, exempt students from paying tuition fees other universities, establish a fund for create jobs for university graduates; and also increase in salaries of the armed forces and government employees.

King Abdullah II of Jordan dismissed Prime Minister Samir Rifai and his cabinet, and appointed a new Prime Minister Marouf Bakhit and ordered him to pursue political reforms to "correct the mistakes of the past." Iraqi Prime Minister Noori Al Maliki has announced that he would give up half his salary and vowed not to run for a third term and support to constitutional reform that would place a two-term limit on the office of prime minister.

The concessions announced reflect their nervousness at the developments which question their legitimacy and ability to rule over the country. Their nervousness grows as incidents like this give an opportunity to the fragmented opposition to come together against the regime. The biggest fear is the possibility of the rise of extremist elements which have the potential to sway public opinion against the regime.

For the Arabs in North Africa, it is the poor economic conditions - rising inflation, unemployment, poverty etc that are the main driving forces behind popular discontent. Added to this is the long ruling authoritarian rulers running hegemonic regimes with rampart corruption and police brutality. But the situation in the Gulf region is evidently different. Blessed with huge oil wealth, the Arab Gulf countries are running welfare states with widespread system of social welfare and economic concessions. The Arab Gulf rulers, though involved in corruption and nepotism, have distributed the national wealth better than the North African rulers. Again, though the Gulf Arab rulers run undemocratic regimes, they have proved themselves less authoritarian in managing the internal affairs than their North African counterparts. This is the primary reason of absence of street protests in the Gulf sheikhdoms.

Clearly, the street protests across the Arab world have made the rulers apprehensive of the future of such protests and its implications for them. Being themselves vulnerable to the popular uprisings of this nature, some Arab rulers have supported the authoritarian regimes. For instance, Libyan leader Gaddafi stated that "There is none better than Zine (Zine El Abidine Ben Ali) to govern Tunisia. Tunisia now lives in fear." Saudi Arabia has now given shelter to the former Tunisian leader Ben Ali.

Though protests continue in Cairo for the 15th day receiving a flood of support from around the world, Mubarak has also received support from several Arab leaders. After giving shelter to the Tunisian Ben Ali, Saudi King Abdullah has expressed his solidarity with the Mubarak regime. King Abdullah condemned the protesters as "intruders" who were "tampering with Egypt's security and stability in the name of freedom of expression." On February 8, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Foreign Minister of UAE met President Mubarak in Cairo and handed over a letter from President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Omani ruler Sultan Qaboos sent his Special Advisor for External Communications, Omar Al-Zawawi to hand over a letter to Mubarak on February 6. Though the details of the meetings and the letters have not been disclosed, it is widely believed that they contain support for Mubarak.

The future of the revolution in Tunisia and uprising in Egypt is difficult to foretell but one thing looks certain: that these events have sown the seeds of discontent and popular uprisings against the undemocratic rulers of the Arab world. The popular discontent in these countries may be suppressed for the time being by the rulers either by announcing economic packages, incentives or by liberalising their political system to some extent, but the long term repercussions of these suppressed voices would continue to resurface in waves in future. Arab rulers should learn lessons from the developments in Tunisia and Egypt and to take note of the aspirations of the people, especially of the young masses. The time has arrived for the Arab rulers to evenly distribute their national wealth and make people a part in the decision making process. Or else, people will express their displeasure by means of protests and demonstrations if they continue to feel, what placard of a young Egyptian protester read: “It is better to die for something than to live for nothing.”