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Ripple Effect of Egypt's Protests

Author: Deborah Jerome, Deputy Editor
February 4, 2011

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The Arab world is paying wary attention to the youth-led protest movement sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, as "final push" protests (al-Jazeera) in Cairo got underway, calling for President Hosni Mubarak to step down immediately. A month of demonstrations led to the ouster last month of Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali; and Yemen, Jordan, Algeria, and Syria are also seeing street protests.

A demonstration in Yemen on February 3 drew more than twenty thousand people, and Jordan's King Abdullah answered protests by sacking his government February 1. Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in response to growing unrest, said February 3 that he'll end Algeria's nineteen-year state of emergency (LAT) in the "near future."

Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose opponents called for a "day of rage" today, is another leader with reason for concern, notes CFR's Robert Danin, who says the Egyptian and Syrian regimes have much in common. Others disagree, noting that the protests may well have strengthened the "resistance bloc" led by Iran and Syria, which is seeing "many of its chief regional adversaries weakened" (WSJ), notably Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah. Assad recently gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal pledging reforms.

Mubarak himself has promised to step down and not run for reelection in September. But Mubarak told ABC News on February 3 that while he's "fed up with being president," if he left now there would be chaos across the country. CFR's Elliott Abrams says the Egyptian president will never depart unless pushed, because he has always viewed Egypt as an inherently unstable country.

Several factors lead experts to speculate that the revolutionary mood could spread. The UN Development Program's 2009 Human Development Report on Arab countries points to the unemployment, social inequality, repression, and corruption endemic across the Arab world."We're really seeing a reworking of the landscape of the Middle East," says CFR's Isobel Coleman.

The possible ripple effect across Arab countries in the Middle East and Africa has led to comparisons with the protests that swept across the former Soviet republics in 1989 (al-Jazeera). "Right now, all these uprisings look somewhat the same, as they did in Eastern Europe in 1989," writes Robert Kaplan in Foreign Policy. "But like in Eastern Europe, each country will end up a bit differently, with politics reflecting its particular constituency and state of institutional and educational development."

Over the past decade, Arab countries have seen an increase in protests and other demonstrations (CarnegieEndowment) in response to autocratic leaders and other conditions, although correcting those longstanding conditions will be a challenge even for new, more democratic governments. "I am deeply worried that young Arabs will turn away from democracy as soon as they realize that you cannot eat free elections," Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, a professor of economics at Virginia Tech, told SpiegelOnline.

Additional Analysis

The protests in Egypt and elsewhere have "put paid to the notion that the Middle East is indifferent to freedom," writes Philip Stephens in FT.

Egypt's armed forces are the key actors in the current crisis, says this Washington Institute for Near East Policy report.

The Obama administration must scale back its ambitions to affect change in Cairo, writes CFR's Steven A. Cook on ForeignAffairs.com.

Fareed Zakaria argues in TIME that democracy can take hold and work in the Arab world.

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