The self-immolation of unemployed graduate Mohamed Bouazizi in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid on 17 December provided the catalyst for a wave of popular uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa that has so far toppled two regimes and is redefining the region’s political landscape. This is prompting many to ask who will be is next.
The timing of the uprisings and the speed at which they have spread may have come as a surprise, but the fact that they happened has long-been forewarned. With governments across the region failing to provide jobs and opportunities for growing young populations, the conditions for violent uprisings have been in place for many years.
Although the level of frustration at unmet expectations is common in many countries across the region, the focus of protests varies from country to country, leaving some regimes more vulnerable to change. MEED assesses the vulnerability of the each of the states.
There is a high risk of political upheaval as the authoritarian regime struggles to respond to demands for reform. With Islamists having already proven themselves capable of election success back in 1992, they would be well placed to fill any power vacuum left by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
Bouteflika built his political appeal on his relative success in defusing large-scale Islamist militant violence using amnesties backed up by force. But he seems unable to find the answer that will placate the disenchanted unemployed youth of Algeria’s poor urban districts. His fundamentally authoritarian and secretive regime seems unwilling to risk the political and media liberalisation sought by the new reform campaign, inspired by events in Tunisia.
Said Sadi of the reformist Rassemblement pour la Culture et la Democratie struck a popular chord in January in calling a demonstration in favour of political reform, which sparked a massive security force response.
The question is whether the authorities will be able to resist pressure for fundamental change to the regime by taking more limited measures, such as the promised lifting of the state of emergency and extra programmes of housing construction and youth job creation.
The challenge is complicated by the cumbersome nature of the state machinery. It is questionable whether announcements of new measures will be rapidly translated into economic action on the ground that improves the position of ordinary people. The state’s instinctive reaction is always to reassert control, which hinders its capacity to foster a more business-friendly liberal economic climate or respond to demands for political change.
Recent events in Bahrain have shocked foreign observers. Most saw the island state as a typically stable Gulf monarchy. Yet tension has been building for months: throughout 2010 there were regular clashes between Shia youths and government security forces. Since August, a major security crackdown has seen hundreds of opposition activists detained, with 23 put on trial.
Although he introduced limited democratic reform a decade ago, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has pursued sectarian social and security policies, apparently designed to prevent the 60-70 per cent majority Shia population from exercising influence in line with their numbers.
Through mass importation of foreign Sunni migrants, the government has tried to alter the population balance and provide a stream of loyal Sunni recruits for the security forces – from which Shias are largely excluded. Resentment has been compounded by the lack of transparency surrounding lucrative land reclamation and real-estate projects in which senior members of the ruling Al-Khalifa family are widely claimed to have major interests.
In 2006, King Hamad pressured Sheikh Ali Salman, the soft-spoken leader of the Shia Islamist Al-Wefaq party, into joining the parliamentary system. But government refusal to give ground on migration and other grievances has served only to undermine Sheikh Ali and bolster the popular standing of the rival movements that refuse to participate in the king’s political framework. Now, following the latest bloody crackdown, Al-Wefaq has quit parliament.
Words of regret about casualties may do little to assuage popular anger in a country that became the first Gulf state to see protesters openly calling for the overthrow of its ruler.
Jordan’s high unemployment figures and rising food prices mean conditions are ripe for anti-government protests to develop into something more destabilising. Although King Abdullah’s military-tribal networks among ‘East Bankers’ (Jordanians of non-Palestinian origin) are strong and provide for a bulwark of support against the urban Palestinian-origin Jordanians, who have pressured the Hashemite monarchy, he has few economic levers to pull to lighten the load on his impoverished subjects.
King Abdullah’s swift response to the Tunisian and Egyptian events, sacking his government and appointing a new prime minister Marouf Bakhit, suggests an alertness to the dangers facing his regime. However, Bakhit’s appointment has failed to convince many of the new commitment to reform. He previously served as prime minister and showed little inclination to advance an agenda of political and economic change. The Muslim Brotherhood’s growing boldness in pushing for the restoration of Jordan’s constitutional monarchy could trigger wider political conflict. Pressure to change the electoral system and reduce the powers of the king could prove unpopular with the East Bank constituency. If the king is forced to resort to loyalist tribal networks to suppress dissent, violence along the lines of the 1970 Black September clashes – pitting royal forces against Palestinians – could resurface.
As MEED went to press, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi was desperately clinging on to power, with reports that he had lost control of more than 90 per cent of the country, following an uprising inspired by events in neighbouring Tunisia and Libya.
Fierce clashes between anti-government protestors and supporters of Qaddafi started in the port city of Benghazi in mid-February, but quickly spread to Tripoli. The challenge to Qaddafi’s regime has been unprecedented in its strength and the state’s response has been brutal; heavy weaponry and military aircraft have been deployed against protestors. Although it lacks a formal organised opposition and has a fragmented Islamist movement, Libya is now under serious threat. It is unclear how long the ageing Qaddafi, who has ruled the country for more than 40 years, will be able to hold out now that he has lost support of much of the armed forces, along with senior figures in his regime, and his influence is limited to Tripoli.
The uprising against him is the result of dissatisfaction over the lack of transparency, entrenched corruption associated with senior regime figures, and the denial of basic civil rights. In an hour-long televised address on 22 February, Qaddafi vowed to crush the revolt and said he would not leave the country, but would die a martyr.
By promising to quit at the end of his current term and not to attempt to install his son as his successor, President Ali Abdullah Saleh has recognised the reality of the changing mood in the Middle East. That means he will be president until 2013 – or at least that is the plan, if he can ride out the present wave of protests.
Saleh has been an adept juggler of tribal factions and has somehow contrived to remain the fulcrum of the Yemeni political system, despite a bloody civil war with Houthi rebels in the northwest and a persistent, if mostly peaceful, separatist campaign in the south. He has also managed to at least partially contain the activities of Al-Qaeda’s local offshoot. But faced with peaceful urban protest in the heart of Sanaa itself, he seems more at risk. Unlike richer neighbours, Saleh is not in a position to pour money over the problem. And as a self-proclaimed democratic state, Yemen has so far held back from trying to deal with dissent through ruthless suppression.
Thanks to the parliamentary system, the country does have functioning opposition parties and can negotiate some sort of path forward. Indeed, a negotiated compromise may also be a precondition for any effective attempt to broker political solutions to the regional tensions, particularly in the south.
The security situation in Iraq may have improved, but Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is sensitive to events in the region and the familiar litany of problems – lack of electricity, rising prices, unemployment, poor education – are all present in Iraq.
That vulnerability was evident in recent decisions from officials to divert spending away from military purchases towards staple food products. The government has delayed the purchase of F-16 fighter jets and placed $900m of allocated funds into food rations, buying 200,000 tonnes of white sugar in February to support the plan.
Al-Maliki has only just managed to put together a working coalition government, almost a year after elections failed to deliver a decisive verdict on who should rule Iraq. The continued inability to provide adequate electricity services puts the government in a uniquely precarious position.
There is one other source of conflict in Iraq. Sunnis that were brought within the state security apparatus – the Sons of Iraq – have felt more excluded. If the Shia-dominated government fails to provide sufficient concessions to the minority Sunni community, the insurgency that prospered up to 2007 could revive. It could unleash further internecine violence in a country, which had hoped to have put the worst days behind it.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government faced down widespread protests back in 2009, when hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets to condemn the alleged rigging of the presidential election that handed the incumbent another landslide win.
The deployment of Revolutionary Guard cadres to quell the protests succeeded in containing that uprising. But Tehran’s government now finds itself in the unusual position of praising the upheaval in Egypt, yet condemning the outbreak of protests back home — a hypocritical stance, say the regime’s critics.
In mid-February, large anti-government protests spread across Iran, resulting in another strong security force reaction. Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, two opposition leaders, were placed under house arrest.
But it remains to be seen whether Iranians, who already enjoy greater democratic rights than their Arab neighbours, will rise up as they did two years ago.
Lebanon remains at risk of instability, although not directly linked to the unrest witnessed in North Africa, the Levant and parts of the Gulf.
After the collapse in mid-January of Saad Hariri’s national unity government and the subsequent defection of a number of MPs to the Hezbollah-backed March 14th camp, Prime Minister-elect Najib Mikati is struggling to form a new government.
Many of the issues that drew Egyptians, Yemenis and Bahrainis on to the street exist in Lebanon, including widespread unemployment – particularly acute with the Shia communities – and an elite that has been accused of hoarding political and financial power.
With Hezbollah prepared to bring its supporters on to the street if it feels its interests are being attacked and a highly-armed Israel to the south ever ready to take military action, Lebanon will remain a political risk hotspot in the short term.
The Moroccan government has responded to the threat of unrest, spreading from neighbouring Algeria, and elsewhere in the Arab world, by pumping extra funds into the economy. It hopes the move will be sufficient to remove the underlying causes of social tension.
In mid-February, the government said it planned to add about $1.8bn to its state subsidy fund, the Caisse de Compensation, almost doubling its size. The move is ostensibly part of a longer-term objective to offset the impact of rising global commodity prices on the country’s poor, but the timing suggests worries over possible unrest quickened the decision.
Since Tunisia’s regime was toppled in January, Morocco’s opposition newspapers have been predicting a wave of social protest, but it has yet to materialise. Morocco’s Foreign Minister Taieb Fassi Fihri has suggested unrest in the region could be used as a pretext to foment trouble in its volatile Western Sahara region, the cause of a long-running armed conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front, which has backing from Algeria.
Morocco’s robust economy may mitigate unrest. International rating agencies Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor’s have said Morocco is least likely to be affected by the regional unrest.
Gazans celebrated the exit of Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak as wildly as anyone in Tahrir Square, yet the strip is unlikely to witness a rise in street level protests against the Hamas administration. Although discontent at the Gazan government is rife, particularly over the activities of Hamas-linked security forces, the local population does not necessarily blame them for the impact of the economic blockade.
In contrast, the Fatah-ruled West Bank faces heightened political risk. Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s dismissal of his cabinet on 14 February showed that Palestine is not immune to the shock waves hitting the region. President Mahmoud Abbas announced shortly afterwards that elections would be held in September. The polls could provide a release valve for discontent. There are dynamics at play in the West Bank that could stave off sustained unrest. Noted improvements in the economy are finally feeding through on the ground and the removal of some of Israel’s military checkpoints have also helped.
September elections could see Fatah punished at the polls, but it is hard to envisage a new intifada directed inwards, rather than at Israel.
Syria shares the same socio-economic issues that underwrote the protests against the Tunisian and Egyptian leaderships. It is faced with high unemployment, widespread poverty and has a poor human rights record. Syria’s mukhabarat (secret police) inspires fear in much of the population. There is also broad resentment at a regime elite that is perceived to have accumulated too much power and money.
The government of a small, but powerful clique of leaders from the country’s minority Alawite confession in a country with a strong Sunni majority is another bone of contention for many Syrians. But President Bashar al-Assad, himself an Alawite, has brought more Sunnis in.
Syria has yet to witness the mass street-level protests seen in Bahrain, Yemen and Libya, despite much anticipation from foreign political analysts that Al-Assad could go the way of his counterparts in Tunis and Cairo.
Al-Assad retains a level of popular support in Syria that is not granted to the regime as a whole. The perception remains that the real power is held by senior regime figures such as the powerful director of military intelligence, Asaf Shawkat, and Al-Assad is attempting to drive reform against their wishes.
Another positive for the president is the public’s view that the toppling of the regime could trigger a devastating destabilisation akin to Iraq’s sectarian strife in the post-Saddam period. For the moment, Syria’s government looks to be on top of the situation and will dispense social benefits to keep popular discontent at bay.
Safe for now
Major change in constitutional or government structures are unlikely in Kuwait, despite persistent political disputes and tensions.
The protests and repression in nearby Bahrain, has stirred speculation over how far the pressure for radical change could sweep through the Gulf. But Kuwait may be less at risk to such dramatic instability than many other countries, despite the often bitter tone of domestic political debate. This is thanks to the combination of an open political climate that accepts room for arguments and challenges to the government and a welfare state and public sector – where most Kuwaitis work – that are funded from the country’s vast oil revenues. The regional upheavals may persuade the government to speed up the pace at which it is assessing claims to nationality by stateless Bidoon residents.
Safe for now
After four decades in power, Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Saeed faces little threat to his rule, having won support from much of the country’s population with his gradual modernisation of a traditional society.
Despite a gathering of 500 young Omanis on 18 February to demand higher wages, Muscat is likely to avoid the kinds of protests seen in neighbouring Yemen. However, Oman is not free from potentially destabilising problems, notably the lack of an obvious heir to the 70-year-old sultan, who has no children.
Universal suffrage was granted in 2003, but while the country does have some democracy, the elected Majlis al-Shura has only limited powers.
Safe for now
Close proximity to Bahrain and uncertainty resulting from unrest in the wider Arab world caused some jitters on Qatar’s financial markets, but it is unlikely that the political order in this tiny, gas-rich emirate will be shaken.
Revenues from gas exports have pushed per capita income above $80,000 in recent years, a figure that reduces scope for unrest among the peninsula’s population of 250,000 native Qataris. While the ruling Al-Thani family does not allow much scrutiny of its affairs and controls the domestic media tightly, the social climate is more tolerant. Doha’s successful bid to stage the 2022 World Cup and its role as the headquarters of the Al-Jazeera news channel reflect a desire to maintain a sound global reputation.
Safe for now
The UAE is not quite the oasis of calm that tourist brochures suggest, but the federation remains a very low risk when it comes to popular protest. While Ras al-Khaimah has witnessed a succession struggle in recent years, which in 2003 caused unrest on the streets of the emirate, the UAE lacks the socio-economic conditions that have triggered demonstrations in Bahrain and Yemen.
Dubai’s economic travails have not impinged on the local population, although expatriate workers have in the past staged demonstrations related to working conditions on building sites. The smaller, non-hydrocarbon-rich emirates – lacking the fiscal resources of Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah – could be vulnerable to unrest, but the country’s wealth is sufficiently widely spread to avoid a serious deterioration in living conditions for nationals.
Safe for now
Saudi Arabia, unlike the rest of the GCC countries, faces serious social issues. Despite its hydrocarbons riches, its larger population, spread over a vast territory, leaves it vulnerable to street-level discontent. Government figures have put the ratio of 20-24 year olds without a job at a dangerously high 43 per cent. Official unemployment levels of about 10 per cent may underestimate the scale of the joblessness problem.
Saudi Arabia is no stranger to street protests. Most recently, in January, dozens of demonstrators took to the street to protest about the poor state of infrastructure in the kingdom’s second largest city, when Jeddah was hit by floods caused by torrential rain. The Saudi leadership will have been concerned by the protests sweeping through the Arab world, particularly those in neighbouring Gulf state, Bahrain, which are now moving into their third week.
Following a three-month absence due to medical reasons, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz returned to Riyadh on 23 February and immediately held talks with Bahrain’s King Hamad to discuss the unrest in the region.
He also announced extra benefits for Saudi citizens, including funds for housing, social security and debt relief, widely perceived as a move to pre-empt any protests.
The unravelling of domestic security in 2003-05, when Al-Qaeda affiliates staged a series of attacks targeted at expatriates and foreign interests, demonstrated the potential for instability in the country.
It is quite possible regional protests could spread to the kingdom – a ‘Day of Rage’ has been announced for 11 March. But the authorities under King Abdullah’s astute leadership should be well prepared to deal with the aftermath. With large financial resources at its disposal, the government’s challenge is to ensure that discontent is not allowed to develop into something more serious.