By Eurasia Group's Middle East practice
Egyptians are hardly the only people in the Arab world burdened with an economic system that provides them few opportunities and a political system designed to frustrate their aspirations. Just as upheaval in Tunisia captured the imaginations of Egyptians, so the rest of the Arab world is watching as protection of privilege collides with demand for change in the heart of Cairo. Particularly if Hosni Mubarak is forced from power, other authoritarian regimes in the region will be at risk. The most vulnerable are Jordan, Yemen, Algeria, and Bahrain.
In Jordan, the only other Arab government to sign a peace treaty with Israel, King Abdullah faces a serious surge of dissent. His regime is not yet at risk, but if Egyptian protesters are able to force Mubarak from power, Jordan's opposition will demand fundamental and immediate political reform. In recent weeks, thousands of protesters have demonstrated against economic conditions and the monarch's monopoly hold on political power. Abdullah responded by sacking unpopular Prime Minister Samir Rifai and replacing him with Marouf Bakhit, a loyal member of the country's East Bank elite and most recently the king's special advisor on security issues.
Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood has much broader and deeper public support than its counterpart in Egypt. In addition, divisions between Jordan's royal family and tribal leaders on one side and Jordanians of Palestinian descent on the other are growing. The country's large gap between rich and poor and the government's unwillingness to tolerate dissent make Jordan a country to watch if things in Egypt get much worse.
Yemen's stability faces even greater challenges. Its government faces a secessionist movement in the south, a dormant conflict with Houthi rebels in the north, and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. In most of the country, the Yemeni government is not fully in charge. Unlike the spontaneous uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, recent protests in Yemen have been organized by the country's largest opposition movement. But if angry, unemployed youth decide to join the protests, Yemen's government could find itself in real trouble.
Like Hosni Mubarak, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been in power for more than 30 years. And like Mubarak, he has moved to limit pressure on his government by declaring on Wednesday that he won't run for another term in 2013 and won't pass the presidency to his son, Ahmed. It remains to be seen whether these concessions will be enough to deflect calls for his immediate resignation.
Pressure is also mounting on the Algerian government. Long-standing economic and political grievances have fueled a recent burst of public unrest, and in the wake of the events in Tunisia and Egypt, opposition parties and civil society organizations have shifted their demands from economic to political reform. About 70 percent of Algerians are under the age of 25, and the majority of young men are unemployed. A few government officials and businessmen control the vast majority of the proceeds from the country's oil wealth. Widespread demonstrations could upset the delicate balance of the country's political and economic structure and possibly provoke divisions within the ruling elite over how to respond.
As in all these
countries, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has offered concessions intended to
bolster his popularity, including an offer on Thursday to end a 19-year state
of emergency in the country. Public calls for political freedoms and possibly
early elections will dominate an opposition march scheduled for Feb. 12,
and uncertainty over who and what will follow Bouteflika will create tremendous
political uncertainty. If the unrest can't be managed, it's possible that key
military figures will abandon Bouteflika or that junior officers might move
against the old guard.
Finally, public frustration in Bahrain, a majority Shiite country ruled by a Sunni monarch, could reach the boiling point if the al-Khalifa family cannot tamp down recent sectarian tensions. Bahrain saw significant unrest last summer and fall in the run-up to parliamentary elections, and Shiite youth clashed with Sunni security forces in nightly riots. There's also a small risk that Iran would exploit further confrontations by providing material support to Bahrain's Shiite population. That's a move that would have serious repercussions for security across the region.
Ayham Kamel, Mohammed El-Katiri, Hani Sabra, and James Fallon are analysts in Eurasia Group's Middle East practice.
Salah Malkawi/Getty Images