Q&A: Following Upheaval in Egypt, Are Other Countries Next?

BY Larisa Epatko  February 14, 2011 at 5:14 PM EST


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After government-toppling protests in Tunisia and Egypt, other “people power” protests are popping up around the region.

Yemen was quick to follow with demonstrations of its own. In Jordan, King Abdullah moved fast to quell protests in his country by dismantling the cabinet.

In Algeria, anti-government activists defied a government ban over the weekend and tried to march in the capital Algiers, but scores of riot police were deployed to disband the demonstrations.

The Iranian opposition movement, quashed last year, reappeared Monday in Tehran’s Enghelab (Revolution) Square, where police used tear gas on the crowds.

And in Bahrain, where a Sunni minority rules a Shia majority, protesters demanding more political freedoms and jobs also were confronted by police. Updated 10 a.m. ET, Feb. 15: Two protesters died in the melee, and Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa promised an investigation into the deaths and to move forward with reforms.

We asked Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, to describe the sources of discontent in other countries in the region and the similarities and differences between their protests and those seen in Egypt and Tunisia:

Algeria

Algeria is a huge oil producer, so rather than getting money in aid, the government takes in much more money through the oil business, but a lot of people feel that money doesn’t trickle down.

There’s a huge problem with hidden unemployment in Algeria, as people stay in school because they can’t get jobs. But it’s not that they’re really working in school, they’re just avoiding being on the job market. So there’s very high unemployment, especially among university graduates, and really profound unhappiness — they believe it should be a wealthy country but it’s not.

One of the significant things about Algeria is you really have very large population centers along the coast that aren’t Algiers. There are other major cities which have even more of the problems and get less attention initially. So like Tunisia, you might have the case where things start outside the capital and move in, rather than starting inside the capital and moving out.

Iran

One of the big differences with Iran is you don’t have a huge Farsi media environment, and I think that one of the important things in Egypt was the combination of social networking and satellite television. In Iran, you don’t have the same impact with an Al Jazeera or an Al Arabiya reporting on the protests. That being said, as we’ve seen before, the economic conditions in Iran are ripe for unrest. It’s just a question of how you catalyze them.

Yemen

Yemen doesn’t have the sort of educated, disaffected population that we’ve seen in other places. It has an uneducated, disaffected population. And Yemeni politics have generally been interest group politics. That is, people have oftentimes through their tribes appealed for more resources.

There are three insurgencies going on in Yemen: one in the north with the Huthi (Shiite rebels) rebels; one with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which probably involves a few hundred fighters and many more people who are sympathetic, and then a secessionist movement in the South. It feels to me like in Yemen it’s not so much the unified claim against the system as it’s individual groups appealing for a larger share of the pie.

One of the interesting things about Egypt was you really had a movement that was able to unify and cross all kinds of boundaries, so it was broadly national, it was all classes, it seemed to cross all interest groups. And in Yemen, it’s hard to imagine how that breadth comes together.

Jordan

Because you have a king, you have a little bit of a different situation. It gives a little more flexibility because a king can act like a referee instead of a player. He can move everybody around and can act in the national interests without losing in a way a president of a republic can’t. But it’s still a delicate game for kings to play.

Libya and Syria

Libya and Syria are not far from where Tunisia was — authoritarian governments, tight police states, very strict control of information, and have young people who are relatively educated or aspire to be who don’t see very many opportunities. They are two places where the government actively tried to keep things under wraps like Tunisia did, and so far has been successful. People have talked about protests and they fizzled. But the question becomes, looking forward, how successful will they be.

Many leaders in the region are on edge, though some places might not be as prone as others to an Egyptian-style revolution, said Alterman. “The Saudi government is clearly concerned, but they control so much of the wealth in society, and there is such a tight tie between the religious establishment and the monarchy, and such a social emphasis on loyalty and conformity that Saudi Arabia strikes me as less likely than many places to go through an upheaval,” he said.

Moroccans might be worried, he continued, because you have a large population with an economy which hasn’t performed as well as people would like, and people are critical of the control of life by people close to the palace.

“I think the reality is everybody’s worried, because Egypt was a cornerstone in the stability of the region. Egypt was not a risk-taking society under Hosni Mubarak, and that a place that was trying to play it all very conservatively should shudder is a cautionary tale for everybody,” Alterman said.

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