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Egypt Sneezes, But Arab World Has Yet to Catch a Cold

Protests  in Jordan, Yemen, Algeria too small to pose any threat to rulers

Inspired and emboldened by popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, demonstrators have taken to the streets across the Arab world. But more than two weeks after Tunisia’s president was driven into exile and Egypt’s cabinet was dismissed,  protests elsewhere have so far failed to gain enough momentum to threaten  regimes.

Some 200 Jordanian demonstrators gathered across Prime Minister Samir Rifa’i’s office in Amman on Friday, which has evolved over the last few weeks into the main day of the week for protest. In Yemen, 10,000 demonstrators took to the streets of the capital Sanaa’ in anti-government protests that passed peacefully on Thursday. A much smaller protest on Saturday turned deadly, but fewer than 100 people participated.

In Algeria, where turmoil emerged last month, as many as 10,000 marched peacefully in Bejaia, 100 miles east of the capital Algiers. Otherwise, the country was relatively calm over the weekend.

Observers said the persistence and determination of protestors in Tunisia, where demonstrations have roiled the country for six weeks, is unlikely to find an echo in other countries of the region. However, the unrest may well to lead to limited changes at the top, with some officials being forced out and reforms implemented.

Indeed, Fahed Khitan, a political analyst at Al-Arab Al-Yom daily, said the government and demonstrators alike preferred a quiet shake-up of the existing government, rather than the turmoil and violence that have occurred in Egypt over the past week.

An estimated 100 Egyptian have been killed in protests and businesses, schools and the stock market have been closed as police and demonstrators square off in Cairo and other Egyptian cities.

"There’s fear of a similar scenario taking place in Jordan, which is why everyone is demanding to change the government as soon as possible," Khitan  told The Media Line. "It’s almost certain that the government will be changed in the coming month."

Mimicking demands in Cairo, they called for the resignation of the premier and his government and demanding to dissolve the parliament, elected in November in elections they claimed were rigged. Personally attacking the king is illegal in Jordan, so demonstrators have vented their grievances over poverty, joblessness and corruption at Rifa’i’, calling his government "a bunch of thieves."

In Egypt, the main opposition group — the Muslim Brotherhood — was crushed in November’s parliamentary elections, which left the party with no representation in parliament. Last week, before the demonstrations erupted, the Muslim Brotherhood called on Mubarak to dissolve the "fraudulent" parliament and conduct fair and transparent elections.

A Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood official tacitly threatened the Jordanian regime of a similar fate to that of Tunisia and Egypt’s authoritarian rulers.

"The Arab people are one inseparable unit," Ali Abu-Sukkar, head of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Shura council, told JordanDays.TV, a web TV site. "What happened to Zein-Al-Abidin [Ben Ali, Tunisia’s deposed President] will happen to Husni Mubarak and to other Arab rulers when their Western patrons give up on them … these dictators will all join each other in the same hotel."

Khitan said King Abdullah has been conducting intensive consultations with members of the parliament and the senate, as well as public figures, stressing his intention to conduct far-reaching political reforms. In addition to dissolving the current government, these reforms will include a new elections law that would ensure a more representative parliament, a crackdown on corruption and greater political freedom.

Assaf David, a Jordan expert at the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace in Jerusalem, said the fact that Jordanian society was divided between the native east bankers and Palestinians from the West bank and what is now Israel helped buttress Abdullah’s rule

"The homogeneity of Egyptian society has helped the demonstrators there, whereas the societal rift in Jordan helps the regime," he told The Media Line. "But if the Jordanian opposition is able to agree on a constitution which would limit the King’s authority, this would constitute a strategic change."

Jordan’s new government won the support of parliament by an unprecedented majority of 93% of parliament members, which David says is bad news for Jordan’s political system.

"If no one believes the parliament is capable of managing, they will voice their frustration in the streets," he said. "King Abdullah has brought himself to brink of disaster by doing this."

In Yemen, protesters, who included parliament members, journalists and social activists gathered near the journalists’ syndicate, calling on their president of 32-years, Ali Abdallah Salih "to leave while there is still a chance.”

Nadia Al-Sakkaf, editor in chief of The Yemen Times, an English-language daily, said that Yemenis lacked "the sense of self-determination" required for an Egypt-style uprising. She told The Media Line that demonstrations in the country were mainly organized by the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), a coalition of five opposition parties. However, she said, Yemeni students were more concerned with their studies than with regime change.

"There’s no urgency in the everyday life of a Yemeni that forces him to revolt," she said.   

Unrest in Algeria was intense in its early days, with five protesters reportedly killed and over 800 injured in demonstrations across the country in riots linked to rising food costs on January 9. In response, the government cut customs tariffs and taxes on basic commodities such as sugar and cooking oil, which immediately calmed the protests.
        
But Algeria’s grievances were by no means solely economic. The Bejaia called for regime change and on Saturday, the secretary general of the opposition Workers’ Party, Louisa Hanoun, urged President Abd Al-Aziz Boutafliqa to take "bold political and social decisions" and avoid "externally imposed policies,” favoring a more open debate on the nature of Algeria’s regime.