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30/01/2011 | Popular revolts fuelled by a potent cocktail

Straits Times/ANN

EGYPT has seen the worst protests against the government of President Hosni Mubarak in 34 years. The protests appear to be heavily influenced by the recent uprisings in Tunisia, which led to the ouster of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.


Against this context, it is appropriate that advocates of pluralistic democracy have called on Cairo to take heed of the protesters’ demands and institute widespread political, economic and social reforms. The United States, a long-time ally of Cairo, is among those urging such accommodation.

That said, the United States and other like-minded parties will have to do their calculations when pushing the Egyptian government to accelerate reforms.

Can the changes be made without precipitating a catastrophic collapse, taking into account the delicate political dynamics in Egypt and its immediate neighbours?

Three decades ago, a popular uprising in Iran against the Shah led to the installation of a regime that now threatens stability in the wider Middle East.

It should be noted that the Obama administration continues to support autocratic regimes in the region, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, at the expense of political freedoms in these countries.

No wonder, Washington appears to be signalling that it prefers change to come from within the Egyptian establishment rather than as a result of a dramatic overthrow as had occurred in Tunisia.

The so-called “tunisami” that is sweeping across the Maghreb and parts of the Middle East is fuelled by a potent cocktail: young populations wrestling with tough economic conditions, high unemployment and few avenues for the expression of political views.

That said, what occurred in Tunisia might not occur in Egypt – or even Jordan, Algeria and Libya.

Mubarak has his faults, but he is not as deeply loathed as Ben Ali was, nor is he as prone to kleptocracy.

Moreover, Egypt’s security forces are more experienced at quashing political dissent.

In the end, a more pressing challenge than a move towards democracy is the need for Egypt and other countries in the region to address the grievances and concerns of their people.

China is a long way away from democracy, but its leaders have sought to address the concerns of the Chinese people.

For example, Beijing recently raised the minimum wage in several cities to soothe widespread anxieties over price hikes.

It is hard to predict the political futures of governments in the Maghreb.

One longstanding axiom, however, will always apply: governments, whether they be flourishing democracies or more authoritarian systems, ignore their people’s concerns at their own peril.

The Star (CanadŠ)


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