- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Ripples of unrest spreading across the Arab world are prompting some governments there to brace for a tide of protests over unemployment and longtime autocratic rule.

Governments in Morocco, Bahrain, Syria, Libya, Jordan, Western Sahara and Saudi Arabia are among those that could be affected if simmering grievances flare up into full-blown demonstrations.

“All Arab countries outside the Gulf are susceptible to unrest because they have the same volatile mixture of political and economic factors,” said Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

But London-based Metsa Rahimi, a security intelligence analyst at Janusian Security Risk Management, said that while Persian Gulf states so far have been unaffected, “this isn’t a given anymore.”

Mohamed Elmenshawy, an analyst at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said that if anti-government protesters succeed in toppling Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, governments in Algeria, Yemen and Libya also would be vulnerable.

Egypt is the biggest country in the Arab world and has huge cultural and social influence over the rest of the Arab world,” Mr. Elmenshawy said.

Most countries in the Arab world have large populations under the age of 25 and many youths who are unemployed. Access to the Internet and social networks such as Twitter and Facebook allow them a peek into the lives of the more fortunate, and unequal distribution of wealth has fueled frustrations.

“It is the rich getting richer that has been the problem throughout the region,” said Richard Murphy, who served as assistant secretary of state for Near East and South Asian affairs in the Reagan administration.

While the conditions on the ground are ripe for revolt, catalysts are equally important.

Some analysts said the resumption of the trial of Shiite activists accused of plotting against Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy could become such a catalyst in that tiny kingdom. Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has called for a regional summit on efforts to calm public protests.

The Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, which prompted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country on Jan. 14, has been a source of inspiration to protesters in other countries.

“Inspiration is a powerful thing, and the event in Tunisia certainly sparked a wave of ‘we can do it too’ across the region,” Ms. Rahimi said.

Copycat acts of self-immolation, inspired by the actions of a young street vendor in Tunisia, have been reported across the Arab world.

Not all the protests have been political.

“Some of the protests have remained focused on social grievances, such as food prices and unemployment, and do not threaten the governments. They just want reform,” Ms. Rahimi said, adding that not all regimes in the region are about to fall, like in Eastern Europe 1989.

In an effort to avoid the same fate Mr. Ben Ali suffered, rulers of some Arab nations, such as Jordan, have sought to address the grievances that have brought their people out into the streets.

Earlier this week, Jordanian King Abdullah II fired his prime minister and his entire Cabinet. The opposition dismissed the step as cosmetic and continues to call for curbs on the king’s powers.

People in the Arab world are watching developments in Egypt with much excitement because for the first time in their modern history, they can bring about real change, Mr. Elmenshawy said.

“The phrase ‘Yes, we can’ has just been introduced into their political dictionary for the first time,” he said.