Analysis: Tunisian "contagion" effect hard to predict

BEIRUT Mon Jan 17, 2011 8:05am EST

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BEIRUT (Reuters) - Arabs intoxicated by the popular ferment in Tunisia are wondering if the rapid ousting of an entrenched leader could be replicated in North Africa or beyond.

But given the pent-up fury over economic grievances and political repression felt across all but the wealthiest corners of the Arab world, the region's security states have proved remarkably resilient and adept at stifling pressure for reform.

Arabs yearning for their voices to be heard are among those hoping that will change, while Islamist militants have seized on Tunisia as a sample of what awaits other Arab rulers whose lack of democratic credentials tends to be overlooked by the West as long as they can contain radical Islam and fight al Qaeda.

"People are more powerful than tyrants," exulted Iraq's fiery anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. "The Tunisian people have turned a black page through their own strength, without occupation or outside intervention."

Yet hardly anyone expected outwardly stable, relatively prosperous Tunisia to be the first to stage the popular overthrow of an authoritarian Arab ruler in decades.

So caution is required in assessing whether the undemocratic systems prevalent in other North African countries -- and the rest of the Arab world, bar Iraq and Lebanon -- might prove as brittle as that of former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

Algeria has so far contained weeks of violent protests over unemployment, housing shortages and high food price rises, partly by cutting the cost of sugar and cooking oil.

PRE-EMPTIVE MEASURES

Several Arab countries, including Libya, have restrained prices by cutting taxes and freezing or reversing subsidy cuts in a bid to defuse popular anger over economic hardship.

"If you don't accept change, it will be imposed upon you -- that is the message of Tunisia to Arab leaders," said Saad Djebbar, a London-based Algerian lawyer and political analyst.

He said the Algerian, Moroccan and Egyptian governments all had a wider power base than Ben Ali's, but their populations suffered the same ills, especially a lack of jobs and housing.

"Of course the Algerians have to take heed, but the most important country in this respect is Egypt," said Djebbar, arguing that it would now be harder for President Hosni Mubarak to seek another term or for his son Gamal to succeed him.

Mubarak, 82, has been in power for almost 30 years and is widely expected to stand again in a September election.

His foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, has dismissed as "empty words" the idea that Tunisia-style revolt could spread.

Hamdy Hassan, a leader of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, said his country, like Tunisia, suffered from oppressive government, rigged elections, nepotism, corruption and unemployment.

"When will the explosion take place? God knows," he said, adding that each Arab leader was now "preparing his plane or his accounts" and tightening security to shore up his position.

It is not yet clear what role the Tunisian army may have played in the finale of Ben Ali's downfall, but in the end he was either unwilling or unable to crush his foes by brute force.

Egypt and Algeria, whose security forces quelled formidable uprisings by Islamist militants in the 1990s, seem unlikely to crumble as easily in the face of protests by unarmed crowds.

And demonstrations alone will not necessarily succeed elsewhere -- huge street protests in Iran after a disputed 2009 presidential election were suppressed by security forces and Islamist militiamen ready to die and kill for the ruling system.

LIBYA IMMUNE?

A Libyan former Islamist militant, who asked not to be named, said his country, its restive Benghazi region aside, was immune to contagion from Tunisia.

This was mainly due to a network of tribal alliances underpinning Muammar Gaddafi's rule, state oil wealth, the population's geographic dispersal and awareness of the state's readiness to use violence on political opponents and detainees.

Nevertheless, Arab leaders may have to weigh carefully whether to keep the lid firmly on dissent or begin a carefully calibrated reform process to avert a Tunisia-style explosion.

"It's true that the government in Egypt and Algeria in particular are very practiced at handling this sort of unrest," said Michael Willis, a North Africa expert at Oxford University.

"But this will make Arabs less deferential to power. Arabs everywhere will take heart," he said. "If Arab governments are sensible, they will start to reform. Tunisia was so closed that if you just opened up a little bit, the pressure is released."

The potential for unrest exists in many Arab countries, but only in Tunisia has pressure from below toppled a head of state.

Marina Ottaway, director of the Carnegie Endownment's Middle East program, said it was hard to identify the point at which "chronic discontent develops into a full-blown insurrection," especially in countries lacking organized opposition movements.

"Certainly you can't rule it out, essentially throughout North Africa, Egypt and probably Jordan," she said. "The fact that the president surrendered in Tunisia provides an incentive in other countries, but that doesn't mean it's going to happen."

(Additional reporting by William Maclean in London, Edmund Blair in Cairo and Khaled al-Ansary in Baghdad; editing by samia Nakhoul )

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