- The Washington Times - Monday, January 31, 2011

Economic grievances, including high levels of unemployment and rampant corruption, have been a key driver of protests erupting across the Arab world in recent weeks.

However, since the ouster of longtime Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali on Jan. 14, protesters have grown emboldened by the realization that they have the power to bring about real change.

On Monday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak dismissed his despised interior minister and appointed a new finance minister in a Cabinet reshuffle that analysts say will do little to save his embattled regime.

In a sign that protesters will accept nothing short of the 82-year-old Mr. Mubarak’s ouster, the opposition called for a “march of millions” and a general strike on Tuesday.

“It’s too late now,” Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Institution’s center in Doha, Qatar, said of Mr. Mubarak’s efforts.

Anti-government protesters pray Monday at Tahrir Square in Cairo. A coalition of opposition groups called for a million people to take to Cairo's streets Tuesday. The Arabic on the sign reads "I'm Egyptian, anti-destruction." (Associated Press)
Anti-government protesters pray Monday at Tahrir Square in Cairo. A coalition of ... more >

“The protesters aren’t talking about economics. We’re not hearing chants about bread or subsidies,” Mr. Hamid said in a phone interview.

Economic grievances were the spark for protests in Tunisia, where Mohammed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old street vendor, set himself of fire in December after an altercation with police.

High levels of unemployment across much of the Arab world have fueled such protests. Many college-educated youths are discovering there are not enough jobs that meet their level of education.

“In many ways being underemployed is worse than being unemployed,” said Mr. Hamid. “If you are well educated, you have expectations for a better life.”

Richard Murphy, a Middle East Institute scholar who served as assistant secretary of state for Near East and South Asian Affairs in the Reagan administration, said the Mubarak regime has made promises of reform in the past that were unfulfilled or implemented so slowly that they added to the frustration.

The problem is much bigger than just economic grievances, said Arthur Hughes, a Middle East Institute scholar who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs in the Clinton administration.

“The underlying issue is respect,” Mr. Hughes said.

He recounted how on his trips to Egypt he was witness to Egyptians having to beg and bribe government officials to get things such as driver’s licenses and marriage certificates.

“In a culture in which personal dignity and respect is so important, this treatment has just ground them down and forced them to take matters into their own hands,” Mr. Hughes said.

On Monday, Egypt’s new vice president said he had been authorized to begin a dialogue with the opposition on reform, after the military said in a statement that it would not attack peaceful protesters and acknowledged the “legitimate rights of the people.”

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