- The Washington Times - Monday, January 24, 2011

Autocratic regimes in the Arab world are trying to buy the support of their citizens, driven by fear that ripples from the political upheaval in Tunisia could also sweep them from power.

In the days after the Jan. 14 overthrow of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali by a popular uprising, Arab governments have doled out financial concessions that include a rollback of steep food prices.

Kuwait has distributed millions of dollars in cash to its citizens, who have each received a one-time payment of about $3,500.

In Syria, the government approved a $250 million plan to help 420,000 impoverished families.

In Sudan, the governor of Khartoum state announced measures intended to lessen the pinch from costly essential commodities such as cooking oil and sugar.

“What this brings home to Arab leaders is what everybody knew in theory … that the potential for this kind of uprising exists in all countries,” said Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

“But so far, none of them have been willing to go one step further and say, ‘Lets face it, the protest in Tunisia was not just about unemployment and high prices. The protest in Tunisia was against the government.’”

On Monday in Tunisia’s capital, Tunis, police clashed with anti-government protesters outside the prime minister’s office. The protesters want holdovers from Mr. Ben Ali’s regime ousted from the interim unity government that has been in place since last week.

At one point, the army chief of staff, Gen. Rachid Ammar, addressed the crowd, promising that the army would be the “guarantor of the revolution” and urging calm, according to the Associated Press.

Gen. Ammar is widely considered a hero in Tunisia for reportedly refusing an order to open fire on protesters, leading Mr. Ben Ali to fire him. He was reinstated after Mr. Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia for 23 years, fled the country in the wake of violent protests triggered when a 26-year-old street vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in December.

Bouazizi’s fiery protest has inspired copycats in Algeria, Mauritania and Egypt.

“Opposition groups in Algiers, Cairo, Amman … are seeking to learn lessons from the Tunisian uprising,” said Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Arab regimes have been on the alert and are reacting, so far, only by making economic concessions and have made no effort toward political liberalization.

“In some countries, we may see a tightening of the police state because the regime is afraid. I am thinking particularly of Egypt,” Ms. Ottaway said.

Tunisian state TV reported on Monday that a former Ben Ali political adviser who had been sought by police, Abdelwaheb Abdallah, has been located and placed under house arrest.

Police have cracked down on key allies of Mr. Ben Ali, placing two high-ranking officials under house arrest and detaining the head of a well-known private TV station for allegedly trying to slow the country’s nascent steps toward democracy, according to AP.

A prominent Ben Ali-era holdover, Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, has retained his position but has promised to step down after the elections, which are to be held in six months.

Meanwhile, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman traveled to Tunisia on Monday to press the caretaker government on democratic reforms and elections.

Mr. Cook said he thinks the world has seen only “phase one” of the so-called Jasmine Revolution. “Now is the real hard part,” he said.

Transitions “may not necessarily end up as liberal democracies; they can end up as narrower, nastier dictatorships,” Mr. Cook cautioned.

It is far from clear whether Tunisia’s popular uprising will lead to democracy or another military takeover.

“The story is far from over,” Ms. Ottaway said.

In recent weeks, protests have erupted in Jordan, Algeria and Egypt.

“It is hard to predict who is next,” said Mr. Cook. “Revolutions are exceedingly rare.”

Tunisia’s trajectory will be determined by how its interim civilian leadership handles the six-month period before elections. The military’s actions are equally important.

An indicator of the Jasmine Revolution’s influence will come Tuesday, when large protests are expected in Cairo to mark Police Day.

Organizers of the Cairo demonstration, an annual event, have described the protests as “the day of revolution against torture, poverty, corruption and unemployment.”

In a message on the social network website Facebook, they challenged people to stand up, saying, “We are not less than Tunisia.”

Social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have played key roles in inspiring protests in countries where the use of cell phones and the Internet has exploded.

Authoritarian regimes are mindful of the influence of social media, and governments in Iran, Egypt, Syria and Libya have cracked down on these sites.

“When Ben Ali went out in public to basically throw his ‘Hail Mary’ pass, I found it very interesting that he thought the big concession that he could make that could keep him in power was agreeing to stop censorship,” said Jared Cohen, an adjunct fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Technology provides a window and … people are watching in ways they wouldn’t be able to watch,” he added.

• Ashish Kumar Sen can be reached at asen@washingtontimes.com.

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