CAIRO (Reuters) - Popular revolts in Tunisia and Egypt may have cracked the mould of Arab submission to often corrupt, unaccountable despots, but most still cling to power.
Former Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled after his army refused to crush protesters, but the country remains far from stable and a democratic outcome is not assured.
Rallies against Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak have forced him into some stunning concessions, yet he has not bowed to opposition demands that he end his 30 years in office now.
Advocates of democratic change in Egypt fret that the military men now in key posts may exhaust and fragment the demonstrators before restoring an authoritarian order.
But Arab rulers must also be uneasy about the heady sense of empowerment that has flowed far beyond Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
“The dam has burst, whether or not the Egyptian revolution succeeds,” said Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center.
“Now Arabs throughout the region know they have the power to challenge their regimes. It’s about strength in numbers and once protests reach a critical mass there is very little the regime can do to counter that effectively,” he said.
“Every regime now is going to live in fear of the next revolution. Stability of these regimes is no longer guaranteed.”
Arab rulers will be closely monitoring the struggles in Tunisia and Egypt, determined to snuff out or undermine challenges to their own security-based ruling systems.
Whether they are learning the right lessons is debatable.
“They are learning possibly, but they are also panicking,” said Mustafa Alani, a security analyst at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. “They cannot explain how security regimes like Tunisia and Egypt could collapse ... with media changing sides quickly and the Americans and Europeans washing their hands.”
From Morocco to Yemen, many Arab leaders have acted swiftly to assuage popular anger over economic gripes, creating funds for the poor, reversing subsidy cuts or raising salaries.
In some cases they have offered political concessions too.
Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh has promised to step down in 2013. Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has pledged to lift an 18-year-old state of emergency and institute political reforms. Even in Iraq, a fledgling democracy, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has vowed not to run for a third term.
Arab leaders are clearly keen to avoid the swift damage that popular unrest has inflicted on Ben Ali and Mubarak, who had both seemed to have an unchallengeable armlock on power.
Yet piecemeal reforms and temporary economic sops may not be enough to calm the frustration of their people, fed up with decades of repression, immobility and poor living standards.
Of course every Arab state is different. Reasons as diverse as the lack of big public squares in Algiers, or the qat-chewing habits of Sanaa residents, have been advanced to explain why protests might struggle to make headway in those capitals.
But almost nobody predicted Ben Ali’s overthrow or the tumult in Egypt, so perhaps no Arab ruler is immune, apart perhaps from those in wealthy, thinly populated Gulf states.
“All specificities set aside, events in Tunisia and Egypt reflect a broadly-felt sentiment of fatigue vis-a-vis regimes that have shown little interest for governance, are plagued by increasingly ostentatious corruption, and have simply kept a lid on things for too long,” said Peter Harling, a Damascus-based analyst for the International Crisis Group.
Asked why Syrians had failed to respond to a Facebook campaign for “Days of Rage” in their country last week, he said one factor was a certain Damascene wait-and-see tradition.
“There is a growing sense that the Egyptians have taken upon themselves to express a common frustration, that the message will be heard beyond Egypt’s borders, that a page already has been turned, so why risk exposure?”
The penalties can be high for individuals who defy Arab governments, many of whom are combining concessions with tough security measures to contain or prevent public gatherings.
“Images of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have mesmerised the Arab public, but have terrified their rulers,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, on Wednesday.
The group said authorities in the West Bank, Gaza, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Sudan and Bahrain had violently dispersed recent protests or detained organisers.
“They have responded with their usual mix of repression and intimidation to nip the buds of any wider democratic blossoming,” Whitson said.
Many Arab rulers are skilled at divide-and-rule tactics, playing different factions, tribes or sects against each other.
Egyptian leaders, alternating talk of dialogue with warnings of chaos, may hope to regain the initiative by splitting their opponents and turning public opinion against the demonstrators.
Mohammed al-Masri, of Jordan University’s Center for Strategic Studies, said people in Egypt and other Arab countries were familiar with such tactics and would not be satisfied.
“They are aware of what the regime is trying to do, just offer cosmetic changes until the storm passes,” he said, arguing that the outcome in Egypt was crucial to reform hopes elsewhere.
“If the Egyptian regime maintains itself, it will be a major success for all the Arab regimes. They will go back to upgraded forms of controlling the public sphere and their old methods.”
Hamid said Arab rulers were mistaken if they thought only economic grievances were driving the ferment in the region.
“They think they can defuse or avoid protests with these temporary economic measures. But there is a growing realisation that political demands have to be met as well.”