The unprecedented protests against the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, and the unceremonious ousting of Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali, the former Tunisian dictator, are forcing concessions from authoritarian rulers across the region.
Rising unemployment, bulging youth populations and severe political repression – the backdrop to Egypt and Tunisia’s protests – are common throughout the Middle East.
Although each Arab country is different, making talk of a “domino effect” premature, ordinary people and opposition parties have clearly been inspired by events in North Africa, and governments have scrambled to offer conciliatory policies.
In Yemen, thousands attended opposition rallies last week, and referred loudly to the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings in their chants. More demonstrations are planned on Thursday. Analysts say that unless the security forces raise the stakes with a heavy-handed response, the protests will serve mainly to expedite negotiations between the opposition and the ruling party. At issue is reform ahead of parliamentary elections due in April.
“If [Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh] makes big concessions it will be back to normal,” says Abdulghani al-Iryani, a Sanaa-based political analyst, but he warns that people’s expectations are rising. “We need a new national settlement,” he says.
With dwindling oil revenues and few other sources of foreign currency, Yemen faces economic meltdown, and the central bank was forced to spend $1.6bn last year just to keep the currency afloat.
Mr Saleh, who like Mr Mubarak has ruled his impoverished country for more than 30 years, has slashed income taxes and raised soldiers’ salaries. In a televised speech on Sunday, he denied rumours that he was planning to hand power to his son, saying he was “in favour of change”. A main opposition demand is that a limit on presidential terms should be retained rather than reversed, as Mr Saleh’s parliamentary allies have been proposing.
Syria, another country with rising poverty, a poor human rights record and no popular representation, is also finding itself under an unaccustomed spotlight. The country has faced a series of droughts in recent years, displacing hundred of thousands of farmers and their families. Moreover an elite, many with close links to Bashar al-Assad, the president, has extensive business interests, echoing the way in which members of Mr Ben Ali’s family exploited their status in Tunisia.
Since the unrest in Egypt, the government has raised heating oil allowances, in spite of a policy of phasing out budget-straining energy subsidies.
Mr Assad has even claimed that Syria is undergoing a process of political reform, which he insists predates recent events. “If you did not see the need for reform before what happened in Egypt and in Tunisia, it is too late to do any reform,” he said in a newspaper interview this week.
There is, however, no tradition of popular protest in Syria and analysts say there are few signs that this will change.
“I would see Syria having a relative advantage because the country’s foreign policy is broadly in sync with public opinion [and] its expansive informal sector mitigates economic difficulties to some extent,” says Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group. Mr Harling adds that Syrians are also likely to be put off by their experience of what has happened in neighbouring Iraq and Lebanon. “But this definitely doesn’t preclude the possible expression of resentment in certain segments of society,” he says.
Further south, the Jordanian opposition, dominated by the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, has led demonstrations over several weeks at rising food prices and the absence of democratic reform.
Although the government has just introduced a $550m subsidy package, more protests are planned on Friday, and the opposition is calling for the prime minister and the cabinet to be elected, rather than appointed by King Abdullah, Jordan’s western-allied monarch.
Lebanon has been undergoing a different kind of political turmoil since Hizbollah, the Shia militant group, triggered the downfall of the western-backed government last month. But televisions in shops and cafés have been permanently tuned to the scenes from Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and well-dressed Beirutis can be heard earnestly debating Egypt’s future.
The country sees itself as the intellectual birthplace of pan-Arabism, and in spite of the fact that the Lebanese enjoy greater freedom of expression than elsewhere in the Arab world, events in North Africa have inspired many. At the weekend, hundreds demonstrated outside the Egyptian embassy in solidarity with the protesters in Cairo and other cities.
“Egypt has not slept tonight and neither have I,” writes Rami Zurayk, a leftwing blogger. “I had dreams about the change that is sweeping through the Arab world, and about the hopes that the revolutions in Tunisia and in Egypt and the protests in Jordan and Yemen have instilled in each one of us Arabs.”