Are Popular Protests A Mortal Threat To Dictators?

Opposition supporters carrying banners and Albanian national flags participate in an anti-government protest in the town of Vlora, Albania, on Feb. 4.

Opposition supporters carrying banners and Albanian national flags participate in an anti-government protest in the town of Vlora, Albania, on Feb. 4. Visar Kryeziu/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Visar Kryeziu/AP

Chances are, Arab leaders would never abdicate power en masse.

And regardless of how events in Egypt play out, it's not clear that other countries will face serious threats to their regimes in the form of sustained, wide-scale protests.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the tumult in Tunisia and Egypt is having repercussions that will continue to affect the Middle East and Africa — and perhaps other regions — for months or years to come.

"Every leader and every government is aware now that no one is really immune," says Barbara Bodine, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen who now teaches at Princeton. "And I think every population has a greater appreciation of what their final card can be, and that it can be played."

The aspirations expressed by protesters in Tunisia and Egypt — the desire for greater political freedom and improved economic opportunities — "cannot be confined to people in the Muslim and Arab world," says Ken Gude, managing director of the National Security and International Program at the Center for American Progress.

Opposition movements elsewhere have already been amplified and inspired by the unrest in Egypt and Tunisia. Protests have led to concessions in countries including Jordan, Algeria and Yemen, while populist riots have broken out in places as distant as Albania.

Gude cautions that there is no profit in trying to guess which country will be the next "domino" to fall to broad rebellion. The real question, he says, is how well opposition groups will take advantage of the openings made for them by sudden public expressions of dissatisfaction with entrenched dictatorial regimes.

Regimes Are Adapting

Regimes throughout the Muslim world have already taken steps to adapt to a changed reality. Leaders in countries such as Syria and Iran, which have not hesitated to crack down violently on protesters in the past, appear to stand ready to hold power through renewed repression, if necessary.

Opposition leaders in Iran, including 2009 presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, have called for a protest Monday, putting that regime in a tight spot. It has clamped down on public protests since the mass demonstrations following that year's elections, but it has also loudly championed the protesters in Egypt. It's not clear whether Iran's government will grant a permit for next week's protest.

Other countries, including Jordan and Kuwait, have already taken steps to address concerns expressed by their populaces, through income and food subsidies or promises of greater political openness.

"Maybe I'll be wrong, but I think in the Gulf states, the standard of living is so high that it's difficult to imagine an Egyptian-level of uprising there," says Leslie Campbell, the National Democratic Institute's senior associate and regional director for the Middle East and North Africa.

Saudi Arabia has some long-term vulnerabilities — including the fact that its top three princes are all comfortably into their 80s. But analysts such as Bodine say the House of Saud looks likely to weather the current storm.

In the small Persian Gulf island-nation of Bahrain, protesters have called for a "day of rage" against the ruling family on Feb. 14. They accuse the government, which raised food subsidies and social service payments last week, of blocking Internet accounts in an attempt to squelch their organizational efforts.

"Bahrain is a place where people are particularly likely to take inspiration from Tunisia and Egypt," says Augustus Richard Norton, an international relations professor at Boston University. "A majority Shia population is dominated by a Sunni regime, and the disparities in standards of living are pretty awesome."

Spreading Outside Arab Countries

Opposition leaders outside the Arab world wasted no time latching onto the idea that mass protests are now a threatening tool in their arsenal.

In Uganda, presidential hopefuls have complained to top State Department officials that the Feb. 18 election will be rigged in favor of Yoweri Museveni, the longtime incumbent. If that is the case, they warn, a large uprising may occur.

"Anything can happen in Uganda now," Kizza Besigye, Museveni's top rival, said Saturday.

The idea that people will take to the streets in large numbers may prove wishful thinking by some in many places. But it's well worth worrying about for autocratic regimes.

Ian Lustick, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, recalls that lawyers protesting President Pervez Musharaf's rule in Pakistan helped bring about his downfall in 2008.

"From a social networking point of view, Pakistan is not very far away," Lustick says.

Thousands of Pakistani lawyers and activists gather in front of the Presidential Palace during the "long march" in Islamabad on June 14, 2008. Tens of thousands of Pakistani lawyers and activists demanded the reinstatement of judges sacked by President Pervez Musharraf.

Thousands of Pakistani lawyers and activists gather in front of the Presidential Palace during the "long march" in Islamabad on June 14, 2008. Tens of thousands of Pakistani lawyers and activists demanded the reinstatement of judges sacked by President Pervez Musharraf. Farooq Naeem/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Farooq Naeem/AFP/Getty Images

Social media, like Facebook and Twitter, played a critical role in the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

Pakistan suffers from some of the same ills as Egypt, including high unemployment, especially among youths, and rising food prices. Because of its nuclear arsenal and strategic position between India and Afghanistan, unrest in Pakistan would have enormous ramifications for the Obama administration and others.

Pakistan dissolved its Cabinet Wednesday in an apparent cost-cutting move. Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani is expected to announce a new Cabinet made up of 40 members, down from 60.

"If Pakistan dissolves or is subject to the kind of political mobilization we're seeing now in Egypt, nobody knows what could happen," Lustick says. "The possibility of a tip or a civil mobilization in a country that has 100 nuclear weapons, a nuclear power next-door and U.S. soldiers in the neighboring country — this is what we should be worried about."

Releasing Pressure Valves

Bodine, the former ambassador to Yemen, cautions that for all the current talk about their potential fragility, many autocratic regimes can release pressure not only through economic subsidies but by opening up their political processes.

Bahrain's king, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, she points out, runs a less repressive regime than his father did. Islamist parties operate legally there, opening up "political space and institutional cushions," Bodine says.

Even countries that are seeing protesters come out in the tens of thousands, such as Yemen, are not necessarily going to undergo regime change. In Yemen, in fact, opposition groups have studiously avoided calling for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down, says Gude, the Center for American Progress analyst.

That's in part because Saleh has managed to defuse tensions that had been building over a plan to change the constitution to allow him another term by pledging that neither he nor his son will run in the next election.

But it's also because the opposition parties recognize that the country faces such enormous challenges that an abrupt change in leadership would only compound them, Bodine says.

"The opposition understands that they don't have any magic solutions to the fundamental problems facing Yemen, either," Bodine says.

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