Middle East Protests: Can Money Buy Peace?

Protests in the Middle East continue to rage even in Egypt and Tunisia, where the ruling regimes have been toppled. Throughout the region, activists and opposition leaders are demanding an overhaul of political systems. Though generalizations are difficult, it is clear that—whether the unrest is in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Algeria, Morocco, Oman, or elsewhere—the underlying discontent derives from both political and economic grievances. Yet at time when leaders should be addressing longstanding socioeconomic discontent, too often they are placating the populace with financial handouts and economic promises. Any peace bought at this price will not be sustained unless the core issues of political freedoms and job creation are addressed.

It is difficult to predict the next uprising, but it is evident that autocratic rulers have been trying to hold on to power and maintain the status quo by offering financial incentives and inducements. At first, Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s embattled president, believed the riots against his regime were only economic in nature, more akin to the "bread riots" of 1977 and 2008. Thus he decided to increase salaries of public sector employees by 15 percent. Clearly, this did not work to move the protesters out of Tahrir Square.

In a similar vein, Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, has tried to appease Libyans with cash handouts by promising each family 500 dinars, the equivalent of about $450, which covers an average salary for a month or two. In addition, Gaddafi has decided to reduce taxes, while concentrating on fighting the opposition. Neither of these gestures convinced the opposition to give up the fight and go home. In fact, many Libyans have reportedly simply taken the cash handout and returned to the streets.

In Algeria the opposition was slightly appeased when on March 1, 2011, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, lifted the country’s emergency law in place since 1992. In addition, Algeria, a large oil and gas producer, has announced a long-term spending plan of $286 billion on development projects. At the same time, the government maintains a ban on protests and has only vaguely promised to address corruption and undertake meaningful economic reforms. Political reforms and the rapid creation of jobs has not been part of the rhetoric of the Bouteflika government.

Other Arab leaders have taken some hesitant steps to address both economic and political issues.

In Jordan, King Abdullah II promised salary increases for civil servants and military personal. To address food price spikes, the government introduced a $425 million package of price cuts. On the political front, a new prime minister was appointed and a 26-member cabinet was sworn in with the task of drawing up a blueprint for political reform. In practice, however, the king appoints the cabinet and controls its powers, so this move was not viewed by Jordanians, and particularly the Islamic Action Front, the main opposition party, as genuine reform. For now, it seems that Jordanians are waiting for the new government to deliver on the promise of political reforms, much as the citizens are in Tunisia and Egypt.

In Bahrain, the first Gulf country to be hit by the wave of protests, the ruling al-Khalifa family has been able to quell violence by rearranging the cabinet, pardoning 308 Shi’ite activists, and promising 40 million dinars ($107 million) of aid for families suffering from soaring prices. Other proposals include giving an equivalent of $2,560 to each Bahraini family to help cope with inflation. But this has not been enough to disperse the crowds gathered at the Pearl Roundabout in Manama, who are looking for significant institutional changes and some kind of a power-sharing agreement. Currently, the opposition does not have a unified message, because a rift has opened between those pushing for greater political reform and those going all the way in calling for the overthrow of the monarchy.

Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen is another Arab leader who was quick to promise reforms but has not moved on delivery. The only concession Saleh has made is to promise not to run for reelection in 2013 and not to pass power to his son. He has so far not met any of the demands raised by protesters to handle unemployment, deteriorating living standards, and rampant corruption. The opposition has outlined a transition plan, but Saleh has been unwilling to begin negotiations.

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