A wave of protests across the Arab world against economic mismanagement, unemployment, and corruption as well as the likely partition of Sudan could set the stage for the redrawing of the political map in the region.
Protests across North Africa and the Mideast could escalate further
The protests and the ensuing referendum likely to establish oil-rich southern Sudan as an independent state, would appear to spotlight the failure of most Middle Eastern and North African regimes to provide economic prospects for their populations and guarantee security and equal rights for religious and ethnic minorities.
According to Western diplomats, Middle Eastern governments fear that an independent southern Sudan will fuel nationalist aspirations of rebels in Darfur, secessionists in southern Yemen; Shiite rebels in northern Yemen; non-Islamist controlled parts of Somalia; Kurds in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, and Azerbaijanis in northern Iran.
A spate of recent deadly attacks targeting Christians in Iraq and Egypt has further focused attention on inflamed religious and ethnic tensions and the region's lack of minority rights.
The region's military and security-dominated regimes also worry that the protests will further embolden their populations to vent boiling anger and pent-up frustration with long-standing authoritarian, corrupt and incompetent rule. Last week's warning by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that record food prices are likely to increase even more as a result of erratic global weather patterns threatens to further exacerbate tempers and tensions.
Several Arab states have moved to curb commodity prices in a bid to prevent the riots from spreading to their countries. Libya abolished taxes and custom duties on wheat-based products, rice, vegetable oil, sugar and infant milk. Morocco has begun subsidizing imports to ensure that the price of soft-milling wheat does not rise in tune with hikes on world markets.
Price hikes in Jordan could spark protests like those in Algeria and Tunisia
Jordanian King Abdullah, in a bid to prevent an escalation of mounting tension between Palestinians and East Bank Jordanians, has ordered his government to reduce prices of commodities, particularly rice and sugar, freeze plans to raise public transportation fees and accelerate initiation of job creation projects.
The order came as Jordanian trade unions called for nationwide demonstrations to demand better living standards and the resignation of Prime Minister Samir Rifai. Jordan's Islamist opposition said it had yet to decide whether it would support the protest, but warned that price hikes would spark "an unprecedented explosion" similar to the turmoil in Tunisia and Algeria.
"The government is seeking to contain mounting public resentment. Events in Tunisia and Algeria are forcing it to act because Jordanians have seen that protests produce results," Mohammed Masri, an analyst at the University of Jordan's Center for Strategic Studies, told Deutsche Welle.
Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali's has made certain concessions by announcing that he would not again run for office when his term ends in 2014. In the latest development he has dismissed his government, calling for early legislative elections, and promised to launch an investigation into corruption.
His concessions come after his efforts to squash the protests by claiming that the protesters were being manipulated by foreign terrorists failed. Ben Ali's assertion contrasted starkly with the fact that al-Qaeda's North African affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has been conspicuously silent about the ongoing turmoil in its theater of operations and the fact that the protests were void of any Islamist tint.
While the demonstrations in Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt as well as recent soccer riots in Jordan and Iran and human rights-related protests in Kuwait are unlikely to immediately overturn governments, they signal a growing popular refusal across the region to continue to accept the status quo. Even in Saudi Arabia, where public protests are particularly rare, unemployed teachers are publicly protesting against government job policies.
The hardening of the region's social and economic battle lines creates stark choices for both Middle Eastern and Western governments. Desperate to cling to power, Middle Eastern regimes are likely to increase repression coupled with window-dressing measures that create the impression of responding to widespread discontent rather than opt for real political, economic and social reform.
The West wants answers but may not be putting enough pressure on Tunisia
Western diplomats say the fact that a majority of the dead in Tunisia were killed by security forces after the Obama administration, the European Union and the UN called on Tunisia to exercise restraint and respect fundamental freedoms, points to a sense of alarm within the government that makes it less susceptible to US and European pressure. "It's inconceivable that they are not worried that this is the beginning of the end," one diplomat, who wished to remain anonymous, said.
On a visit to Qatar this week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton nonetheless signaled that the United States and its European allies may be less persistent in their long-standing preference for stability in the Middle East and North Africa rather than democracy that could initially bring Islamic and more nationalist forces to power - a policy that has fueled anti-Western sentiment among large segments of the region's population.
Addressing the Forum for the Future launched in 2004 by the G-8 group of industrial nations as a way to promote growth of nongovernmental civil groups, Clinton bluntly challenged Middle Eastern leaders to open their political systems and economies and warned that "the region's foundations are sinking into the sand."
Clinton said the region's governments need to share power with civic and volunteer groups to tackle issues like exploding populations, stagnant economies and declining natural resources. Pointing to unemployment rates of 20 percent and up, the secretary of state said "people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order" and are demanding reforms, including eradication of corruption.
The US is urging Mideast countries to reform their political systems and economies
Sacrificing democracy for stability?
Analysts have warned that the US and Europe risk missing an opportunity to alter widespread Arab perceptions that the West is willing to sacrifice popular aspirations in the region in favor of authoritarian rule. Yet, as authoritarian Arab governments cling to power with ever greater repression and restriction of freedoms, that is a policy that is likely to ultimately haunt not only regimes across the region but also their Western backers.
Arab human rights activists argue that had the turmoil occurred in Iran or China, the US and Europe would have been quick to condemn government violence against the demonstrators and express support for the protestor's demands.
Analysts say that the EU as Tunisia's foremost trading partner has the most leverage in pressuring Ben Ali to opt for reform instead of repression.
The EU however has yet to signal that Western efforts to curb government repression involve both a carrot and a stick. Intissar Kherigi, a London-based Tunisian human rights lawyer, notes that the EU like the US waited for three weeks before commenting on the protests in her home country. The EU also continues to negotiate the awarding to Tunisia of advanced-partner status, despite the government's long-standing failure to live up to its commitments to strengthen democracy and political pluralism.
"Instead of liberalizing, the Tunisian government has frozen EU subsidies to human rights NGOs under the European Initiative for Human Rights and Democracy and amended the penal code so as to criminalize civil society activity. It makes a mockery of EU claims," Kherigi told Deutsche Welle.
Author: James Dorsey
Editor: Rob Mudge