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Arab world braces for possible domino effect

Yemeni women protest in Sanaa against the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh Keystone

Anxious Arab leaders are scrambling to offer concessions to prevent a so-called domino effect of unrest spreading, says Middle East expert Hasni Abidi.

This content was published on February 2, 2011 - 21:47
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There were violent clashes in Cairo on Wednesday between opponents and supporters of President Hosni Mubarak as the Egyptian government rejected international calls for the leader to end his 30-year-rule immediately.






















The army did not intervene, other than to fire shots into the air, and  no uniformed police were in sight. However, government opponents say the Mubarak supporters were mainly either policemen out of uniform, or people who had been paid to demonstrate for the president.

The violence was the worst in the nine-day uprising against Mubarak, leaving several hundred injured, apparently by stones. A soldier was reported dead after falling from a flyover.

Mubarak went on national television on Tuesday night to say he would not stand in elections scheduled for September, but this was not good enough for the protesters, who demanded he leave the country immediately.

The protests broke out last week as public frustration with corruption, oppression and economic hardship under Mubarak boiled over.                                  

swissinfo.ch: Are the uprisings and unrest in Tunisia and Egypt the beginning of a domino effect in the region?

Hasni Abidi: The contagion is already happening. There is a phenomenon of imitation.

This morning [Wednesday] Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh said he would not seek to extend his presidency, when his current term expires in 2013, and his son would not be a candidate.

In Jordan King Abdullah appointed a new prime minister on Tuesday while the former one had only been there for one month.

And in Algeria, Morocco and Libya the authorities have lowered the prices of essential everyday products.

It’s not a domino effect just yet, but Arab leaders are starting to be gripped by panic. They are making certain concessions and preparing for their departure. They especially don’t want to have to leave like former Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali [who was toppled by popular protests last month and fled to Saudi Arabia].

swissinfo.ch: What are the consequences of these events in the Middle East for the US and European governments?

 H.A.: I think the Americans and Europeans will have to revise their foreign policies and look for new allies, not just from the political authorities in place, as they have shown that they are not reliable or permanent.

But it’s a major exercise and they are not used to it. Since the Second World War the US and Europe have always dealt with the regimes in place.

swissinfo.ch: What’s your view on events in post-Ben Ali Tunisia. Can we talk about a successful democratic transition?

H.A.: It’s very difficult to imagine a successful democratic transition in Tunisia right now. We can talk about political transition but a democratic one will depend on a new constitution, legislative elections followed by presidential elections. Only then can we judge the success of a democratic transition.

But today we can definitely talk about the shift from an autocratic, dictatorial regime to a much more open one that allows all political sides to express themselves. It has already announced new electoral laws which are a positive sign for Tunisia.

swissinfo.ch: What parallels can you draw between the events in Tunisia and Egypt?

 H.A.: In both countries the same political systems were in place for over 25 years and both regimes were seeking renewal through family ties.

They were afflicted by poor governance that resulted in very difficult economic and social conditions leading to higher unemployment, greater corruption and a lack of prospects and hope which led to discontent and unrest. It just needed a spark for people to take to the streets.

The Tunisian government couldn’t hold out long as the army didn’t support the regime and the protests were extremely popular among the population. There were no political leaders so there were no risks of divisions between protestors.

But in Egypt it’s different. The system is much stronger and stable, even if Mubarak is contested. And the Egyptian army is not going to just drop Mubarak like that as that’s not good for the political transition. It’ll try to hold out longer, especially as in Egypt the army are closely tied up with economic and political power.

swissinfo.ch: What’s your view on the current situation in Egypt?

H.A.: We see there are two sides. Anti-government demonstrators are determined and want an immediate departure of Mubarak as they are encouraged by what they’ve achieved. In ten days they wrung out concessions that had been impossible for 30 years.

The army wants to show that it will decide when and how Mubarak leaves, but we can already talk about the end of the Mubarak era. Because since the nomination of [intelligence chief] Omar Suleiman as vice president and Aviation Minister Ahmad Shafiq as the country's new prime minister there has been a movement by the army towards the political sphere.

SWITZERLAND-EGYPT

In December 2008 the Swiss parliament made Egypt a key country for economic development cooperation.

  

Switzerland exports pharmaceuticals, machines, chemical primary products, and matchmaking wares, as well as optical and medical instruments to Egypt. In 2009 exports were SFr656 million ($696 million), imports around SFr109 million. 

The most important exports from Egypt are: oil and gas products, crude oil, cotton, textiles, aluminium, iron and steel products and tourism. 

Around 1,600 Egyptians live in Switzerland and around 1,400 Swiss live in Egypt.

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HASNI ABIDI

Hasni Abidi is a political scientist and specialist of the Arab-speaking world. 

He is director of the Geneva-based Study and Research Center for the Arab and Mediterranean World, which was established in September 2000.

  

His work focuses on political developments in the Middle East and North Africa; he has published numerous works and articles.

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Media attacks

Some foreign journalists covering protests in Cairo have been attacked.

It is reported that Serge Dumont, who writes for the Belgian paper Le Soir and the Geneva-based Le Temps has been beaten, detained and accused of spying. The Belgian foreign minister has demanded his immediate release.

CNN's Anderson Cooper and two Associated Press correspondents were reportedly attacked by supporters of President Hosni Mubarak on Wednesday. CNN later said no one was seriously hurt.

The US State Department said that it was concerned about detentions and attacks on news media in Egypt.

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