Over the past decade, the Arab world has seen an increase in protests, strikes, demonstrations, and other forms of social protest. The uprising that started in Tunisia in late 2010 was not a completely new development, but rather a more dramatic example of the unrest common across the region, particularly in Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, and Jordan.
But the protest movements in the region have severe limitations. The various organizations involved—labor groups, youth organizations, bloggers, political parties, and Islamist movements—have different constituencies, demands, and organizational styles. Indeed, in some countries there has been, until recently, a deliberate decision not to coordinate and particularly to keep socioeconomic and political demands separate. This helps incumbent authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes stay in power despite the high levels of discontent in many countries.
Despite the absence of large cohesive movements, Arab regimes are right to worry about the possibility of an uprising in their countries. The underlying conditions of difficult social and economic conditions coupled with political repression, lack of political freedoms, and corruption exist everywhere. Publics in Arab countries are also right in feeling inspired by events in Tunisia and in believing that they can force change. Ultimately, however, change depends not on Tunisia’s example, but on the ability of protesters to coordinate their efforts and link socioeconomic with political demands and on the governments’ response, plus the imponderable catalyst.