What the Jasmine Revolution Means for the MENA Countries

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Following a revolt in Tunisia sparked by the suicide of a university graduate prevented by police from selling fruit and vegetables to make a living, President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was forced to flee the country last week after 23 years in power. And the dissatisfaction appears to have spilled over into the neighboring countries.

Al Jazeera reports that “Thousands of people have demonstrated in Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Oman, Libya and Yemen recently over the economic situation in their respective countries, some explicitly in solidarity with the Tunisians. A rash of attempted self-immolations has also struck Egypt, Algeria and Mauritania, with protesters seeking to copy Tunisian Mohammed Bouazizi, the 26-year-old whose set fire to himself and helped inspire the protests that toppled Tunisia’s president.”

Ben Ali has found refuge in Saudi Arabia, where according to Saudi officials, the deposed president would not be allowed to engage in any political activity from the kingdom. Since then, Tunisian interim leaders and countries in the MENA region have tried to come to terms with the significance of the events and how best to address the grievances of the people. Assessments of the factors that drove Tunisians into the streets have ranged from the political to the economic.

In one article, Ali Ibrahim suggests that “[people] do not [protest] merely out of tradition, the conditions of their society, or their various regimes, but the important lesson from Tunisia, in the long run, is that unemployment and development are the principal challenges facing the region. These challenges also affect many countries, but freedom of expression is a means to vent frustration.”

Writing for the Lebanese Daily Star, Rami Khouri is more specific: “Heading off similar revolts in other Arab countries would seem to require that long-serving rulers make real changes in four principal areas: freedom of media and expression; more honest political representation of citizens in Parliament; greater accountability in government budgets; and civilian oversight over the security and intelligence services. These changes will not come easily or quickly.”

There does seem to be some movement along these lines, at least on the economic front, coming from the Arab economic summit. According to the Associated Press, “Arab leaders are pledging $2 billion to revamp weak economies across their region amid fears of rising protests over high unemployment, rising prices and corruption. The pledge was made in a document expected to be adopted by the economic summit opening on Wednesday in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh.”

For others though, there is an even more important message from the riots in Tunisia: the absence of Islamic slogans. Some have suggested that the absence of such slogans “punches a hole in the argument of many Arab autocrats that they are the bulwark stopping religious radicals sweeping to power.… [T]he evidence of the past week is that the protest slogans that rang out before [Ben Ali’s] fall demanded not an imposition of Islamic sharia law but fair elections and free speech.”

Reaction to the events has been swift from opposition groups in the region calling for greater political liberalization. An opposition group in Syria — The Damascus Declaration — issued a statement asserting that “the uprising of the Tunisian people has proved that peaceful democratic change is possible, and that the line these dictatorial regimes peddle about chaos or fundamentalism does not wash.”

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood declared that the events in Tunisia sent “a message to oppressive leaders and corrupt regimes that they are not safe…. They are living on top of a volcano of wrath.… If the regime (in Egypt) does not move quickly towards taking responsibility for starting the road to reform, the stability will not last long.”

In Jordan, the Islamist opposition is demanding curbs on the king’s power. Zaki Bani Rsheid, a head of the Islamic Action Front stated that the IAF wanted “constitutional amendments that would limit the king’s power in appointing whoever he wants to head a government without any constitutional restriction.” Analysts and economists in the country have suggested ways in which the government can head off any possible Tunisian-inspired movement. In a Jordan Times article, many suggested that “the government must work out a short-term socio-economic programme that deals directly with the public’s concerns and addresses poverty and unemployment.” They also urged the government to temporarily freeze measures to address the deficit in the state budget, which include allocating 200-300 million Jordanian dinars to create jobs and enhance the living conditions of needy families.

From Iran, the message appears to be quite different from those in the rest of the region. In a speech in the city of Yazd, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said,  “It is very clear that the nation of Tunisia rose up against a Western-backed dictator using Islamic, humane, monotheistic and justice-seeking slogans.… The Tunisians are after establishing Islamic law and rules.”

However, that assessment is not shared by his counterparts at the Arab economic summit, who are nevertheless genuinely concerned about the stability of their own regimes. The Kuwait Times reports,  “Kuwaiti Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Dr. Mohammad Sabah Al-Salem Al-Sabah said yesterday that the goal of economic summits should be to identify the suffering of Arab citizens and to devise strategies to fight poverty, hunger and illiteracy, as well as provide a better medium for Arab joint action.”

According to Al Jazeera, Amr Moussa, the head of the Arab League, warned leaders “that the recent upheaval in Tunisia is linked to deteriorating economic conditions throughout the Arab world, warning them that their people’s anger has reached unprecedented heights. The Tunisian revolution is not far from us. The Arab citizen [has] entered an unprecedented state of anger and frustration. He called for an Arab ‘renaissance’ to lift people from their frustration.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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