Why Are Protests Sweeping the Middle East?

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Protests have swept through the Middle East over the past two weeks, erupting in Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, and Kuwait. Though the protests appear to be driven primarily by national political and economic issues, and are thus for the most part not directly related, the surprising convergence has many Middle East-watchers looking for common strands and larger symbolism. They have discovered both, drawing a number of conclusions about the Arab societies and governments that stretch from the Persian Gulf across North Africa. Here's what they're saying.

  • Regime Changes Unlikely, But...  Foreign Policy's Marc Lynch writes, "I'm not hugely optimistic that we will see real change, given the power of these authoritarian regimes and their record of resilience. But still... interesting times." While it's "quite clear that Arab regimes will do whatever is necessary this time around to block popular mobilization," Lynch notes, "the protests are more violent, there's more of an intense edge to them, there's less focus on formal institutional politics. ... It's an unpredictable moment. Many of these regimes are led by aging, fading leaders such as Hosni Mubarak and Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali who could pass from the scene in a heartbeat--literally."
The Tunisian uprising ... is giving Arabs a glimpse of possibilities that were unimaginable just a month ago. It is profoundly empowering and its psychological effects are not to be underestimated. It is the opposite of the gloom that settled over the Arab world from 1967 onwards and may prove to be no less important. Could this mean that we are about to see the crumbling of Arab regimes, one after another, as happened in Eastern Europe? ... That would be significant for the whole region: regime change of the home-grown variety, not imposed from outside in the way that Iraq was, or from above to give an existing regime the appearance of legitimacy. It would be something unique in the Arab Middle East: democracy by popular demand."
  • Arab Autocracies Not So Stable  The Council on Foreign Relations' Steven Cook writes, "the situation in Tunisia is in many ways instructive of the idee fixe ... that tends to color much of what professional observers of the Arab world write and say about the Middle East. I am talking about stability." He explains what he means: "Is it possible that the gendarme states in the region may not be a strong as we believe? To be sure, they have demonstrated flexibility and an enormous capacity to deflect and undermine opposition, but for how long? Forever? That's a long time. We (Middle East geeks) may be doing ourselves a disservice by playing the odds-on-stability game, especially in light of the failed social contracts, Arab leaders’ willingness to employ violence against there own people, and the limited economic opportunity."
  • Democracy Set to Sweep North Africa  The Council on Foreign Relations' Elliott Abrams predicts, "Tunisia, whose literacy rate has long been the highest in Africa at nearly 80% and whose per capita GDP is about $8,000, should have the ability to sustain a democratic government--once the Ben Ali regime collapses. Tunisians are clearly sick of looking at all the giant photos and paintings of Ben Ali,"  he says, "and when that regime does fall, what happens next will be significant throughout the Arab world. If Tunisia can move toward democracy, Algerians and Egyptians and even Libyans will wonder why they cannot. This kind of thing may catch on. In fact, in Algeria it may already be catching on."
  • Watershed Moment in Long-Term Trend  Pseudonymous North African blogger The Moor Next Door calls the protest wave "one of the most important events in the Maghreb in the last decade, regardless of their outcome. ... They represent a long term trend in Algeria building not over months or weeks but years. In North Africa especially these events must be viewed in the local context first, and then in terms of more remote phenomena."
  • Rebirth of Arab Activism  Al Jazeera's Lamis Andoni says Tunisia could bring together Arab activists. "The roots of this Tunisian 'uprising' are to be found in a lethal combination of poverty, unemployment and political repression: three characteristics of most Arab societies," he writes. "If the Tunisian protests do indeed signal the return of social movements to the Arab world, their stifled hopes may just be turned into an outcry against injustice."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.