With popular uprisings having toppled two Arab dictators in the space of just a few weeks and unrest reverberating across the Middle East, are other regimes likely to fall, too?
Nearly everywhere in the region, autocratic leaders seem to be on the defensive. Using carrots or sticks, and sometimes both, they’re struggling to curb growing protest movements.
In Jordan two weeks ago, amid spreading protests, King Abdullah II dismissed his prime minister and Cabinet, promising reforms. In the Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, police countered protesters’ “Day of Rage” this week with rubber bullets and tear gas, while the king tried to defuse opposition by promising a $2,650 payment of “appreciation” to every Bahraini family. In Kuwait, too, the ruling emir announced cash grants to every citizen.
In Iran this week, government forces used violence to block demonstrators from massing in main squares, despite Tehran’s rhetorical support for the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. In Yemen and Algeria, protesters and police battled in the streets. In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority announced that it would hold long-overdue parliamentary and presidential elections by September, and this week the PA prime minister dismissed his Cabinet.
Long a mostly impotent force in Arab politics, the Arab street suddenly has discovered its power, and it’s ushering in change from Tunis to Amman—not to mention fraying nerves in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
“Activists in other countries are trying to use the example of Egypt and Tunisia to mobilize large numbers of people to the streets,” said David Siddhartha Patel, a political scientist at Cornell University.
Despite the spreading protests, experts cautioned against predicting the collapse of additional regimes. While the Arab street has drawn lessons from Egypt and Tunisia, so have their autocratic rulers.
“Will people demonstrate and protest? Yes,” said Barry Rubin, an Israeli scholar at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center’s program of Global Research in International Affairs. “Will people overthrow governments? I think the answer is no.”
In Israel, the sudden change in Egypt has ignited a sharp debate along partisan lines about lessons to be learned and the efficacy of peacemaking with the Arab world.
“The right wing says you cannot really negotiate agreements with Arabs because the agreements will not be kept because their states are not stable,” said retired Israeli Brig.-Gen Shlomo Brom, an expert on Arab politics at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “The left will say, the lesson is that because of the instability of the Middle East, we should be interested in minimizing friction between us and the Arab world by having ongoing negotiations for peace.”
The calculus for every country is different, and the elements that made for the success of Egypt’s uprising were a uniquely combustible combination that may not transfer elsewhere.
High unemployment, a yawning rich-poor gap, widespread government corruption and deteriorating quality-of-life metrics made Hosni Mubarak almost universally despised in his country, uniting Islamists and secularists in opposition. Egypt faced a looming succession crisis that undermined the legitimacy of the 82-year-old president, who wanted to hand over power to his son, Gamal.
Once the protests began in earnest, Egypt’s government, which receives $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid, was subject to American pressure on how to confront the demonstrators. Perhaps most significant, the Egyptian army opted to side with the protesters over the regime, declining to use violence against the people and essentially turning what had begun as a popular uprising into a military coup.
That stands in stark contrast to Iran, which put down mass protests a year-and-a-half ago following the disputed re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The key state security forces did the government’s bidding at the time, and with gusto: They beat and shot demonstrators, jailed dissenters and executed organizers.
This time, the regime is making sure that mass protests never materialize by choking off main arteries leading to central squares, deploying hundreds of riot officers and banning marches in solidarity with the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.
Already pariahs in the West, Tehran’s rulers have little to hold them back from unleashing the full might of their security apparatus to stay in power.
“The Iranian regime acted decisively early on, using security forces ruthlessly against the opposition, unlike Mubarak who hesitated and vacillated,” said Manochehr Dorraj, an Iran expert at Texas Christian University. “In Iran, the use of the security forces put shivers in the heart of the demonstrators who knew that they might be killed or executed. And because Iran has oil and gas reserves, it could afford to act autonomously and ignore public opinion and take that defiant posture.”
Likewise in Syria, the state security services moved firmly to stifle budding protests, scaring potential opponents into submission through arrests, intimidation and a zero-tolerance policy even for small protest gatherings. Furthermore, the broad popular discontent that fueled the Egyptian protests is less salient in Syria, where quality-of-life measures have improved in recent years under Bashar Assad.
Syria and Iran have another card to play when it comes to staunching opposition.
“Their anti-U.S. and anti-Israel posture lends them the claim that whoever rises against them are agents of the U.S. and Israel,” Dorraj said. “This was not available to Mubarak.”
Algeria in many ways looks similar to Egypt, with broad disaffection for the government of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, youth-led protests gaining steam and widespread strikes. But Algeria’s army is unlikely to side with the people against the regime, many analysts say. The same goes for Algeria’s neighbor to the east, Muammar Gadhafi’s Libya, where dissidents called for a protest to take place Thursday in Tripoli.
Jordan, the only Arab country besides Egypt to have a peace treaty with Israel, is seen to be in a more vulnerable position. Its ruler hails from a minority group in a country whose population is mostly Palestinian. In recent weeks, even the native Jordanian tribes in the minority that comprise the king’s traditional power base went public with charges of corruption against Abdullah’s wife, Queen Rania. Also, the painful domestic effects of the global economic crisis have increased popular discontent in Jordan.
As protests—a recurring presence in the kingdom—gained steam following the unrest in Egypt, Abdullah moved quickly to announce political reforms, firing his government and installing a new, conservative Cabinet designed to placate Jordan’s powerful tribes. The moves, and the king’s relative popularity compared with Mubarak in Egypt, weigh in Abdullah’s favor.
“Here we see a difference between Jordan on the one hand and Iran and Syria on the other: Jordan made some concessions, where the governments of Iran and Syria will not give an inch,” Rubin observed.
“In Jordan, it’s different from Egypt and Tunisia—everybody likes the king,” Faisal Al-Rfouh, a former Jordanian culture minister and now a professor of political science at the University of Jordan, told JTA in an interview from Amman.
“There is no problem with the king, but with the corrupted government and corrupted people,” Al-Rfouh said. “We need to change from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy under the leadership of His Majesty the King.”
Perhaps the Middle Eastern country most vulnerable to revolution is Yemen, which like Mubarak’s Egypt is plagued by high poverty, unemployment, discontent with the regime led by President Ali Abdullah Saleh and, until a few days ago, a looming succession crisis.
Saleh has tried to use both sticks and carrots to quell protests, dispatching his security forces to put down protests while offering a host of concessions, including a pledge to relinquish power in 2013 and not install his son as successor.
Long ravaged by internal conflicts, Yemen is seen as a key front in the war against al-Qaeda and terrorism. If Saleh goes, it’s not clear that Yemen’s government will remain allied with the West against Islamic extremism.
The future of Yemen, like so much in the Middle East, remains uncertain.
“There is one lesson we can learn from the Tunisian and Egyptian cases,” Brom said. “That is that nobody is immune and there are strong limitations to our ability to make forecasts.”