How revolt in Tunisia undermines Arab regimes

Acil Tabbara reports from Dubai on unrest in the region and the role played by Facebook

FROM Egypt to Jordan and Algeria to Yemen, Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” has begun to undermine Arab regimes that have for decades maintained their control through fear, analysts say.

“The question is who remains,” not which country is next, said Amr Hamzawy, the research director at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, adding that popular protests could affect most Arab states except for Gulf oil monarchies.

“What we are seeing is a regional trend — not only about Tunisia. There are massive demonstrations in Egypt, protests in Algeria, Jordan and Yemen.

“There have been some protest activities in the past in a scattered manner, but now there is a regional trend where citizens are taking to the streets to protest for social economic and political rights — it’s not a one-country issue and a one-day phenomenon,” Hamzawy said.

“It’s a dynamic that started in the Arab world,” said Burhan Ghalioun, the director of the Centre d’Etudes sur l’Orient Contemporain in Paris, who in 1977 wrote a Manifesto for Democracy in the Arab world.

“What happened in Tunisia has broken the shackles of fear and showed it was possible to topple a regime, and it wasn’t as difficult as the people imagined,” Ghalioun said.

Waves of protest in Tunisia inspired by Mohamed Bouazizi’s December 17 self-immolation led to Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fleeing to Saudi Arabia after 23 years in power.

Protests that began on Tuesday in Egypt, the biggest there since 1977, intensified yesterday and the fever has spread to Yemen, where thousands, apparently inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, staged a mass protest on Thursday calling on President Ali Abdullah Saleh to quit after being in power since 1978.

And yesterday thousands of Jordanian opposition supporters took to the streets in the capital Amman demanding the prime minister step down. Protesters are angry at rising prices,inflation and unemployment.

But Ghalioun said he does not think the protests will be “automatically contagious,” because each country is different.

“The process of change (in different countries) will not be the same and will not resemble the others,” he said.

There is one common theme between the various protest movements: they are mostly the work of young people and the middle classes and are being organised via social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Traditional opposition parties have been conspicuous by their absence.

“This is an (effect) of what autocratic governments have done to Arab politics in general,” Hamzawy said.

“Opposition parties and movements are weakened. They haven’t been able to reach out to citizens in a systematic manner — they have been isolated,” he said.

“Citizens are now acting and reacting — no longer a party organisation, no longer trade unions. Citizens are lobbying and mobilising on the Internet and taking the mobilisation into the real world.”

The protest movements have also highlighted weaknesses and the lack of popular legitimacy of some Arab regimes, whose leaders are among the longest serving in the world.

“Legitimacy cannot be constructed using the security apparatus or granting benefits to a small group of the population and marginalising segments of the population,” Hamzawy said.

“You cannot run society without offering social justice, without distributing revenues in a just manner and without giving people their political freedom and rights,” he said.

“Nobody can accept that in the 21st century, and Arabs are showing they are no exception.”

In certain countries, leaders have started making concessions or hinting that they might do so.

King Abdullah II said on Wednesday that Jordan needs to tackle popular grievances with a programme of political and economic reforms.

And on Sunday, Yemen’s Saleh said he rejected passing power to his son.

But in an Arab world where “most regimes are perceived by the majority of the population as machines of oppression, corruption and destruction,” as Ghalioun said, it remains to be seen if the reforms will be enough to quell the protest.

Ghassan Sharbel, editor in chief of the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat , put it this way: “Either Arab regimes listen to popular demands and decide to start real reforms, or they continue to rely only on the security apparatus, and in that case these regimes could collapse” one after the other.

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