Uneasy lie the heads wearing the Maghreb's crowns

Autocratic regimes in other North African countries have reacted nervously to the Tunisian uprising.

Algerians have been gripped by the Tunisian crisis and the country is being monitored closely for signs that the uprising may spread.

At least four people are reported to have set fire to themselves since Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s regime began unravelling and demonstrations have taken place in many Algerian cities, with prices and unemployment key themes.

They have been peaceful but some observers say that could change. “There’s a simmering rage that could explode at any moment,” said Faisal Mattawi, editor of the newspaper, al-Watan.
“Opposition and dissent is being suppressed in aggressive ways. The situation here is similar to Tunisia.”

But Hugh Robert, of the International Crisis Group, underscored the differences between the countries: “Algerian public opinion has become detached from the government, but mainly on the level of sentiment. The regime is very concerned, but I don’t see a simple domino effect.”

Ben Ali was a one-man show. The power of Algerian leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika is shared with the military and other institutions and he has not been the same lightning rod for hatred.

As demonstrations raged in Tunis, Egypt’s security police were deployed in larger than usual numbers throughout Cairo, where the youth have been speaking optimistically of a second popular revolt in the Maghreb.

Social media sites have been popular as a mobiliser and messenger. Themes have included the perils of Arab dictators losing touch with citizens and the power of dissent to force change. But there has been no trigger for outright revolt.

President Hosni Mubarak seems aware that street unrest could escalate into the biggest threat to his 30-year rule, although his office denied TV reports that an emergency meeting of the Supreme Defence Council had been called.

Law professor Abdullah al-Ashaal, of the American University in Cairo, warned: “I hope that Egypt does not repeat what happened in Tunisia because it would result in clashes between Christians and Muslims, rich and poor. Authority would collapse.”

Hassan Nafaa, a political scientist at Cairo University, said that at the very least the Tunisian revolt would kill off Mubarak’s mooted plan to nominate his son, Gamal, as successor.

Libya’s most striking official reaction has been leader Moammar Gadaffi’s expression of “pain” that Ben Ali was forced to flee when he had (belatedly) offered to stand down in 2014.

Such a reaction was predictable: Gadaffi has been in power for a record 42 years and Libya also has a young population and high unemployment. But its oil resources mean it is far wealthier than Tunisia. Since it renounced terrorism Libya has been more open to outside influences and anxious to attract Western investment.

Libya is extremely corrupt, though there is less flaunting of wealth than in Tunisia. Libya’s army and security services, based on strong tribal loyalties, would almost certainly crack down on serious political upheaval and possibly take over the country.

Gadaffi’s al-Fateh revolution in 1969 was typical of the Arab world in the 20th century—a military coup modelled on Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and his officers, not a mass phenomenon. The extraordinary images from Tunisia will be deeply unsettling in Tripoli.

In the royal enclosure of King Mohammed VI in Rabat the Tunisian rebellion has provoked serious concern. “I think all the Arab regimes are shaking and Morocco especially,” said journalist Aboubakr Jamai.

Morocco officially expressed “profound solidarity” with the Tunisian people while saying that “the stability of this country is essential and fundamental to regional security and stability, particularly in the Maghreb”.

Authorities have watched events nervously, banning pro-change demonstrations outside the Tunisian embassy while Ben Ali was in power but allowing celebrations to mark his fall. State television kept coverage to a minimum, but many Moroccans watched events live on al-Jazeera.

The country’s semi-democracy is run from the palace, where advisers interpret the royal will while an elected Parliament presents a democratic face to the world.

Ben Ali was a dangerous model for Morocco, proving that authoritarian rule could work only with economic growth, Jamai said.—Martin Chulove, Ian Black and Giles Tremlett, Guardian News & Media Ltd 2011

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