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Archive for Sunday, January 16, 2011

Mideast asks after Tunisian riots: Where next?

January 16, 2011

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— The stunning collapse of Tunisia’s long-ruling president brought cheers from the streets and a flood of messages on Middle East websites Saturday with one overriding question: Could it happen next in Egypt or other iron-fist regimes in the region?

There’s little doubt that Tunisia’s people-power uprising — a potent mix of economic gripes and demands for political freedoms — will embolden similar calls in a region dominated by authoritarian leaders and ruling monarchs. Protesters in Cairo mocked Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and trade union activists in Jordan chanted: “Tunisia is teaching us a lesson.”

But chances appear far less likely of a rapid domino-style political housecleaning such as what occurred in Eastern Europe after the Cold War, experts say.

Many states with deep political rifts, such as Egypt and Iran, maintain vast security forces heavily vested in the status quo and have shown no signs of breaking ranks to join protesters. Other hard-line regimes like Syria come down harshly and swiftly against dissent.

And smaller states with well-organized political opposition, including Kuwait and Bahrain, provide their native citizens with wide-ranging social benefits that few would dare put at risk with a full-scale mutiny.

“We only have to look at Iran to see the challenges for anyone thinking they can bring change just by going to the streets,” said Sami Alfaraj, director of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies, referring to the massive protests that were eventually crushed after the disputed re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2009.

Still, he said it’s a mistake to underestimate the power of the upheaval in Tunisia.

“This gets planted in minds that it is possible. They believe it can happen in their country,” Alfaraj said. “Leaders cannot just dismiss that.”

Friday’s ouster of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali followed the country’s largest protests in generations and weeks of escalating unrest among young people and others who have seen relatively little benefit from Tunisia’s recent economic growth.

Those issues have echoed across the region as many other regimes face similar complaints.

In Jordan, more than 5,000 people joined rallies on Friday to protest rising prices and demand the removal of the prime minister. King Abdullah II last week ordered reductions in prices and taxes on some foods and fuels to help ease the burden on the poor.

Saudi King Abdullah’s palace said the ousted president and his family were welcomed in the kingdom with a wish for “peace and security to return to the people of Tunisia.” Other Arab leaders issued few official statements in a possible sign of the tense political climate. The Arab League urged calm, saying it was “the beginning of one era and the end of another.”

“Now the bell is ringing and it should be a reminder to other leaders that people are fed up. They need political freedoms and serious economic reforms, that there must be an end to corruption and nepotism,” Jordanian political analyst Labib Kamhawi said.

In Cairo, a small group of activists gathered outside the Tunisian Embassy for a second day and drew comparisons between the North African countries: claims of chronic corruption and poverty, a heavy-handed security force and limits on the press and Internet.

The protesters outnumbered 5-to-1 by riot police — chanted “soon we will follow Tunis” and other slogans against the government of Mubarak, who has ruled for three decades.

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