Egypt protests could spread to other countriesWhat is the likelihood of the current unrest in Egypt spreading to other countries in the region?
Syria’s small private media sector has featured the story prominently. State media have found it too big a deal to ignore. Surprising many, Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to President Bashar al-Assad, dedicated her newspaper column to the streets of Cairo, Tunis, Amman and Sana’a, saying the west did not know how to respond to collective Arab anger.
Syria seems as perplexed. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Assad said circumstances in his country would not stir the rage of the masses. However, he did pledge reform.
Over the past week, government ministers have announced subsidies and aid for the poor. Today teachers were granted interest-free loans for laptops, and some public officials were charged with corruption in the city of Aleppo.
Syria last faced serious unrest in 1982 in the city of Hama, when many thousands were killed in an abortive revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood.
A prime candidate for catching the Egyptian contagion. Protests over poverty, inflation, unemployment, corruption and a lack of democracy have been going on for weeks. King Abdullah II is less popular than his late father, King Hussein, and Queen Rania’s global fame is not matched by enthusiasm in the country itself. Samir al-Rifa’i, the prime minister, has become a lightning rod for discontent, though he recently found $550m in subsidies for fuel and staples such as sugar, rice and gas. The package included pay rises for civil servants and security personnel. An active opposition role is now being played by the country’s Islamic Action Front, which is calling for political reform, but still treading carefully. “There is no comparison between Egypt and Jordan,” IAF leader Hamzeh Mansur said on Monday. “The people there demand a regime change, but here we ask for political reforms and an elected government.” Abdullah has promised reforms, particularly on an election law. But it is unlikely that he will surrender his right to appoint the prime minister and cabinet officials. Unemployment is officially around 14% in the country of six million people, 70% of them under 30. The minimum wage is $211 a month. Poverty levels are 25%, while the capital, Amman, is the most expensive city in the Arab world.
Like Egypt, Jordan is a close ally of the US, and is the only other Arab country (apart from distant Mauritania) to have a peace treaty with Israel. But it has efficient security forces, the Mukhabarat secret service, and a tame media.
Sandwiched between momentous events in Egypt and Tunisia, Libya has so far escaped any large-scale unrest. Muammar Gaddafi, whose 41 years in power outstrips Hosni Mubarak’s 29, presides over a tightly controlled regime that is changing very slowly and is wealthy enough to do it in a way that relieves rather than worsens tensions.
The still-tribal nature of Libyan society means Gaddafi controls not only the army and security forces, which would almost certainly step in if there was serious political upheaval, but also other key constituencies. Recent protests in Benghazi and Derna over housing shortages were seized upon as evidence of spreading trouble, but local grievances have not coalesced into opposition at the national level, Libyan opposition figures admit.
Like Egypt and Tunisia, Libya has a young population and high unemployment but its oil resources mean it is far wealthier.
If all eyes in the Arab world are on Egypt, nowhere in the region seems less likely to see similar events than Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah rushed to telephone Hosni Mubarak to express his support, after welcoming Tunisia’s exiled leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to a gilded exile in Jeddah. Impoverished Yemen apart, all the Gulf states are hereditary monarchies with either no political parties or little in the way of representative government. Expectations are correspondingly low. Saudi municipal elections in 2005 were a limited exercise that has not been repeated. The Saudis control the world’s largest known reserves of oil and are a strategic US ally. Tiny Qatar, the richest of them all, leads the region in using wealth to provide subsidised education and food to buy the acquiescence if not the loyalty of their people – who in several countries are outnumbered by expatriate foreigners.
Algeria has banned all marches “for security reasons” amid fears that the wave of unrest spreading through north Africa could destabilise the country. But a senior ally of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika said Algeria would escape an uprising because protesters were not demanding political reform. Abdelaziz Belkhadem, head of the ruling FLN party and a cabinet minster, said the government could be doing more but added: “Protesters in Algeria want better social and economic conditions. They have not made political demands as is the case in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan.”
Street protests have been banned in Algeria since 2001 when one descended into a riot, leaving eight people dead and hundreds injured. Security forces in Algiers have been reinforced to combat a feared attack by Islamist extremists after a series of suicide attacks in 2007. A march to demand the “departure of the regime” is planned for Saturday 12 February in Algiers by the newly-formed National Co-ordination for Change and Democracy group, which includes opposition movements and other civil organisations.
The opposition coalition, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), has called for nationwide protests on Thursday after talks with President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s ruling party failed to materialise.
Opposition members were in discussions with EU officials yesterday in Sana’a to try and find a way of resuming a dialogue with Saleh’s ruling GPC. The biggest obstacle is a proposed constitutional change that would abolish presidential term limits and the timing of the upcoming parliamentary election.
A JMP spokesman said: “These protests will be bigger than last week’s; tens of thousands will be demonstrating across Yemen calling for Saleh to leave.”
Saleh has taken steps to defuse tensions, raising salaries for the army and civil servants and rebutting claims that he plans to install his son, Ahmed, as his successor. Yesterday he announced plans to expand Yemen’s limited social security system