First Tunisia, then Egypt. Whatever next? The laws of the Arab world are supposed to prohibit any domino effect: the military is supposed to be too strong, the governments too unresponsive. But these laws no longer hold now that two of North Africa’s most deeply entrenched leaders have been unsettled by popular protests. The ‘Arab street’ has suddenly become aware of the power it can wield. When President Ben Ali fled Tunisia with his wife (and perhaps some of the country’s gold reserves) alarm bells rang in palaces across the region. All over the Arab world reform is being nervously pledged. Even in Yemen, the president has promised to stand down — albeit in two years’ time. Whether the pledges are genuine, or simply a stalling tactic, the fear is palpable.
To determine whether a revolution is afoot, it is important to work out what is not happening. For example, it is not the case that outraged Arabs have just discovered that their leaders are repressive and corrupt. They — and we — have known that for years. But ever since Tunisians discovered that people power really can work, a new dynamic is at play. Egyptians are learning that they too can stand up to their leaders. The internet and mobile phones have helped the spread of information and ideas in a way that was unthinkable before. Little wonder nervous regimes have tried to restrict networks. Or that Google and Twitter have responded by launching a less easily censored service.
Another factor, as mundane as it is powerful, is the high price of basic food. One of the first instructions President Mubarak handed his new Cabinet this week was to lower food prices and maintain government subsidies. Well-fed people are less likely to demand change. But, as he will find out, low food prices and plentiful supplies are not something governments can easily mandate. Nothing has exposed the inefficacy of some regimes so much as their economic failures.
For this reason, wealthier countries may be better insulated from the wave of protests. Colonel Gaddafi ought to be ripe for removal, having ruled Libya for 41 years. But his rapprochement with the US eight years ago, and sweeping economic reforms, have led to extraordinary economic growth and one of the lowest poverty rates in Africa. All this has boosted Libya’s international stature, with Gaddafi appointed leader of the African Union and Libya taking a seat on the UN Security Council.
President Bouteflika of Algeria looks less comfortable than his neighbour in Libya. Like Gaddafi, he has oil revenues to help prop up his regime. But in spite of the wealth, almost a quarter of all Algerians now live below the poverty line. The government’s nervousness explains its heavy-handed response to several hundred people demonstrating against rising food prices two weeks ago: the capital was shut down and tear gas used. Protestors are planning a 12 February march to call for the ‘departure of the regime’.
The younger monarchs at either end of the region are also relatively well placed to withstand the storm. King Abdullah of Jordan has a knack for pre-emptive action. Just over a year ago, he dissolved parliament early on the grounds that it was not addressing the key issue of unemployment. Last week, he reacted to a large demonstration in his capital, Amman, by sacking the government and demanding faster economic reform. There are plenty of grounds for protest: unemployment, inflation and recent corruption scandals. Having a peace treaty with Israel seldom endears an Arab ruler to his people. But he has at his disposal the feared Mukhabarat secret service, regarded as being ruthlessly efficient.
Lebanon is in a state of chaos — but that is nothing new. Its drama centres on a United Nations tribunal looking into the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, its former prime minister. When Hezbollah realised it would be accused of involvement in the murder, it forced out the prime minister and is now trying to form a new coalition government. Tensions will be significantly heightened next week when the tribunal finally announces its findings.
When Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad described the chaos sweeping through the region as a ‘kind of disease’, he spoke like a worried man. Syria would be immune, he hastily added, because of the close relationship between people and government. Few Syrians would agree. Hopes for reform following the death of Assad’s hardline father in 1999 were quickly dashed. He was last week talking the language of reform, hailing ‘a new era’ in the Middle East. But he seems not to want it just yet. Like President Mubarak, he has also taken the precaution of blocking internet sites including Facebook and Twitter.
For years, such tactics worked. Arab rulers could talk about reform, and the need to grow civic institutions over time. But they could also feel confident that the way to quell unrest was to pass emergency laws and let the police do the rest. But according to last month’s certainties, Ben Ali would still be ruling in Tunis. People in the Arab street are no longer frightened. And the feeling now is that — whether in Algeria, Syria, Yemen or even Saudi Arabia — nothing is now unthinkable. No regime is now unsinkable.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated February 5, 2011