Is 2011 the Arab world’s 1989?

Posted: January 23, 2011 in Arab people power, Egypt, Jordan, People power, Tunisia

Through this blog entry, I start a multi-part reportage and analysis of the people power struggles in the Arab world. Since they are on-going processes and the geographic scope is still uncertain, I cannot predict at this point how many entries I will be writing on the subject.

I am not in situ and I will rely on the wire agencies for the reportage (and the dramatic photos and videos) and will simply echo them.  However, I will bring my analysis, as a student of the people power phenom, to bear on this unfolding and historically-unprecedented process. 

A shameless plug: please read Civil Resistance and Power Politics edited by Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton-Ash and published by Oxford University Press in 2009 for the people power struggles the world over during the 20th century–including some of the color revolutions in the Soviet world, Gandhi’s India, Chile, the civil rights movement in the United States, the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, and the Iranian revolution of 9979.  I wrote the chapter on Philippine people power, 1983-86 and I can send a soft copy to interested readers.

I hope friends from all over the word, including comrades from the Arab world will give me feedback on this series.


Tunisia was first and many analysts and pundits believed it will not be duplicated anywhere in the Arab world, supposedly because of the formidable strength of sitting Arab regimes and the demonstrated quiescence (so far) of ordinary Arabs.

However,  there is strong speculation about a possible domino effect similar to the collapse of Communist governments around Eastern Europe in 1989. After all, much of the Arab world is ruled by over-staying autocractic monarchs, dictators, and dominant party- or movement regimes which have generally failed to improve the lives of their constituents.

In truth, oppressed and long-suffering people have a way of confounding even the most learned and sophisticated analyst.

After only a week after the Tunisians ousted over-staying President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, similar protests against their country’s leaders and poor living conditions erupted in Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, and recently, in Yemen.

Let’s recall the recent events in Tunisia.

  • 17 Dec:            Mohamed Bouazizi sets himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid over lack of jobs, sparking protests
  • 24 Dec:           Protester shot dead in central Tunisia
  • 28 Dec:           Protests spread to Tunis, capital city of Tunisia
  • 8-10 Jan:       Dozens of deaths reported in crackdown on protests
  • 12 Jan:            Interior minister sacked
  • 13 Jan:            President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali promises to step down in 2014
  • 14 Jan:            Ben Ali dissolves parliament after new mass rally, then steps down and flees
  • 15 Jan:            Parliamentary Speaker Foued Mebazaa sworn in as interim president
So the Tunisian story was started by a solitary individual who most likely did not have any intention of toppling Ben Ali from power. 
Bouazizi set fire to himself when officials in his town prevented him from selling vegetables on the streets of Sidi Bouzid without permission.  This set off protests about jobs in the town, which has an agriculture-based economy in one of the poorest regions of the country.

These demonstrations then spread elsewhere, in a move the government said was being exploited by the opposition.

But the violent response of the authorities – with the police opening fire on demonstrators – appears to have exacerbated anger and ignited further protests.

The Tunisian process is far from over.  Dissatisfied Tunisians have stepped up calls for Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi and his cabinet to resign.

BBC reported yesterday that thousands took to the streets of Tunis and other cities, while the main trade union began a march on the capital.  Policemen were among those protesting. They had defended the regime of former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali before he was ousted last week.

Continuing protests in Tunisia

Ghannouchi, who long served under Mr Ben Ali, has promised to leave politics after elections.

They are expected to be held in the next six months, though no date has yet been set.

Ghannouchi has left Mr Ben Ali’s ruling Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD) party and insisted that figures from the previous regime who have remained in positions of power – including the ministers of defence, interior, finance and foreign affairs – have “clean hands”.  But this has failed to satisfy many opposition figures and protesters.

Continue reading the main story on Tunisia by licking on the red-colored link.
In Jordan, protests were seemingly triggered by tweets of Queen Alia expressing sympathy and concern for Ben Ali.

BBC also reported that more than 5,000 people have rallied in Jordan to protest over economic policy and call for the government to resign. The protesters have taken to the streets over the past week, angered by rising prices and unemployment.

Protests in Amman, Jordan

The government recently announced a $125m (£78m) package to reduce prices, as well as measures to boost salaries.

But demonstrators say the measures are insufficient, and that they will continue to protest until Prime Minister Samir Rifai steps down.

The January 21 protests, dubbed the “Day of Rage”, took place in the capital, Amman, and several other cities, and were the largest so far.

The demonstrators have been emboldened by demonstrations in Tunisia that led to the flight of former Tunisian leader Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali, the BBC’s Dale Gavlak reports from Amman.  They include left-wingers and Islamists, and trade unionists.

The crowd in Amman directed chants at the prime minister: “Listen Samir, change is soon coming,” they said. “The Jordanian people are on fire.”

There have been a number of cases of self-immolation in other Arab countries.

Opposition groups in Jordan object to economic reforms introduced by Mr Rifai after he took office in November 2009.

The changes led to cuts in subsidies for basic commodities.  But the latest measures, which correspondents say are aimed at preventing protests from spreading, reverse the reforms.

Protesters also want the prime minister to be democratically elected rather than appointed by King Abdullah.

“The king should be the guide, not the executor of the country’s daily affairs,” said Hamza Mansour, the leader of Jordan’s largest opposition group, the Islamic Action Front.

Jordan has a population of about six million. The official unemployment rate is 14%, though other estimates put it much higher, especially among the young.

It remains to be seen whether the current Jordan political turmoil could take on an anti-monarchist turn.


In Egypt, protesters apparently wanted to emulate Bouazizi, the Tunisian who started it all in December last year.

A man has died after setting himself on fire in Egypt’s northern port city of Alexandria in January 19.  Officials say the 25-year-old unemployed man – Ahmed Hashem el-Sayed, who had suffered third-degree burns – died in hospital. Earlier on Tuesday, another man set himself on fire in the capital, Cairo.

An Egyptian security official said the man who set himself on fire in Cairo was a 40-year-old lawyer called Mohamed Farouk Hassan, the Reuters news agency reported.  It quoted an unnamed source as saying he shouted slogans against rising prices before setting himself alight.

AFP quoted an official as saying the man was slightly injured and taken to hospital. It said police had also arrested a man who was carrying jerry cans of petrol near parliament in Cairo, on the presumption that he was going to set himself on fire.

Egyptian protesters

On Monday a 50-year-old man, Abdu Abdel-Monaim Kamal, set himself alight outside the parliament after shouting anti-government slogans. He was being treated in hospital for minor burns.  He is a restaurant owner and father of four from the city of Ismailia, east of the capital. The website of Egypt’s leading Al-Ahram daily said he had repeatedly held heated arguments with local officials over the price of bread.

An Egyptian Facebook group has called for street protests on 25 January, which the organisers are calling a “day of revolution against torture, poverty, corruption and unemployment”.

The Egyptian dissident Mohamed ElBaradei has warned of a “Tunisia-style explosion” in his country as self-immolation protests proliferated and anti-government activists announced plans for a nationwide “day of anger” for January 25.

“Suppression does not equal stability, and anybody who thinks that the existence of authoritarian regimes is the best way to maintain calm is deluding themselves,” ElBaradei told the Guardian.  But the former UN nuclear weapons chief stopped short of calling on his supporters to take to the streets, prompting scathing criticism from opposition campaigners who believe ElBaradei is squandering a rare opportunity to bring an end to President Hosni Mubarak’s three decades of autocratic rule.

Apparently, a number of strong-men in the Arab world is facing unprecedented challenges from people power. How these processes will turn out is anybody’s guess. Nonetheless, whether they fail or succeed in achieving their political objectives,  the Arab protesters have certainly captured the world’s imagination.

  1. Richard says:

    It is very important to analyze how the 1979 Iranian revolution sparked a resurgence in Islamist politics through out the region- even in the fiercely secular Turkey. Now, looking at the current seismic shifts on the “Arab street”, we can’t discount the profound influence of the Green Movement in Iran in 2009. The rise of a prosperous Turkey, with a moderate Islamist ruling party, AKP, has also inspired many around the region to imagine a post-secular autocratic order – without severing ties with the U.S. ala Iran in 1979. In many ways, democratic movements and pro-reform agitations in upper middle-income non-Arab countries such as Turkey and Iran have had significant impact on neighboring states. Nevertheless, Tunisia has been a largely middle-class country, highly export-oriented, less strategically embedded in the Israeli-Palestine equation with a weak state apparatus. Perhaps, it is an exceptional development – just like the rise of AKP in Turkey and the revolution in Iran. The “demonstration effect” hypothesis is yet to be tested in the diverse Arab world.

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