Cairo agrees to more concessions as protests sputter

Unrest may be waning elsewhere too, say experts.

February 8, 2011 02:55
3 minute read.
Anti-Gov't protester sleeps in Tahrir Square

Egypt Protester Sleeps 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)

The civil unrest that swept from North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula in recent weeks led some commentators to hail a new dawn of democracy in the Middle East.

Massive demonstrations led to the ouster of Tunisia’s strongman and to announcements from the decades-long presidents of Egypt and Yemen that they would step down at the end of their terms. In normally placid Jordan, King Abdullah preempted wider protests by ordering a government reshuffle. By late last week, pundits and analysts were jostling to identify the next flashpoint of anti-government dissent.

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Now it seems those forecasts may have been premature, as close observers of the region say the eye of this unanticipated storm may already have passed.

In Egypt, after two weeks of instability that pushed the most populous Arab nation to the edge of anarchy, the crisis appeared to be settling into at least temporary stasis on Monday. A few tens of thousands of protesters remained in Tahrir Square throughout the day, but the area bore more resemblance to a carnival than to the rock-strewn battlefield of recent days.

The Egyptian government pledged a 15-percent raise in salaries and pensions for state employees, and to investigate official corruption and election fraud. With Western backing, President Hosni Mubarak’s regime appears confident in its ability to maintain its grip on power at least until September elections.

In Jordan, meanwhile, members of the country’s major Beduin tribes warned of a Tunisia or Egypt-style revolt if their own US-backed ruler did not speed up political reforms. The Monday letter signed by 36 tribesmen nationwide also criticized overspending and interference in executive decisions, a veiled reference to Abdullah’s high-profile wife Queen Rania.

But while Islamists and other opposition forces have demanded greater say in politics and employment opportunities, they have consistently fallen short of calling for Abdullah’s resignation.

Hillel Frisch of Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies told The Jerusalem Post that the divided nature of Jordanian society complicates the formation of a unified opposition. The government can easily play off the majority Palestinian population against the indigenous East Bank community, he said, making any real challenge to the monarchy unlikely.

In Teheran, meanwhile, The Washington Post’s correspondent reported that Iranian dissidents were seeing the Cairo street scenes as stark, dispiriting reminders of their own unfinished business from the quashed street revolt of 2009.

“To disgruntled Iranians,” Thomas Erdbrink wrote, “the sight of the Iranian government cheering on the Egyptian protesters is seen as deeply ironic. In 2009, when Iranians themselves launched massive protests against the government here, Iran’s leaders labeled them ‘Western-backed rioters’ and sent paramilitary forces wielding batons and tear gas to quash their revolt.”

According to Frisch, Iranians’ heterogeneous ethnic and ideological make-up renders a flare-up of the 2009 revolt unlikely.

“There are 20 percent of Iranians who will support the Iranian regime to the bitter end because it is a theocracy,” he said. “That’s something Hosni Mubarak can’t count on.”

In Yemen, opposition protesters have waged their own street rallies in recent weeks to unseat Ali Abdullah Saleh, an army-officer-turned-president who, like Mubarak, has held power for three decades. In response, Saleh wisely made two significant concessions: backing down from plans to modify the constitution to let him rule past 2013, and announcing he would not allow his son to take his place.

In return, he asked that the next day’s rally be called off. It was not, but Saleh had effectively taken the bite out of the marchers’ demands.

New Jersey-based journalist and analyst Jane Novak, whose website, armies-of-liberation.

com, has been banned by the Yemeni government since 2007, posted a blog entry late last week entitled “Yemen’s fragmented, immature and disconnected opposition.”

Novak – a stay-at-home mother of two who has never visited Yemen and speaks no Arabic – was described in a 2008 New York Times profile as a bête noire in the country, where authorities vilify her as a Shi’ite monarchist or, worse, “the Zionist Novak.”

Opposition coalitions in the richer North should have united with secessionists in the south, Novak wrote in her blog post. “With all the external pressure and an enhanced coalition, they might have forced real reforms.”

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