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Arab regimes struggle against revolt spread

Arab regimes are taking steps aimed at stopping Tunisian and Egyptian-style popular revolts spreading to their doorsteps

AFP, Tuesday 8 Feb 2011
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From talks with the opposition to promises not to stay in power forever, Arab regimes are taking steps aimed at stopping Tunisian and Egyptian-style popular revolts spreading to their doorsteps.

Protests about a lack of political rights and freedom of expression, corruption and police abuses, unemployment and high food prices have sprung up in several countries.

Since Tunisia's long time president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted during a popular revolt in mid-January, the question on everyone's lips has been: who is next?

The first answer came from Egypt, where two weeks of unprecedented protests have rocked the three-decade rule of President Hosni Mubarak.

Faced with rising pressure from the street, Mubarak, 82, announced that he would not seek another term when his mandate ends in September, promised reforms and invited the opposition to a national dialogue.

Those at the talks included the powerful but banned Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamists' first official encounter with the regime in half a century.

Since then, other Arab leaders have also announced that they will not stay in power forever, as once appeared to be the case.

Like Mubarak, who stressed that his decision not to stand again was taken a long time ago and had nothing to do with the deadly protests, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said his decision had been taken beforehand.

"I have personally decided not to seek another term after this one, a decision I made at the beginning of my first term," Maliki told AFP, adding that he wanted to change the constitution to limit premierships to two terms.

"One of the characteristics of a lack of democracy could be when a leader rules for 30 or 40 years," Maliki told AFP. "It is a difficult issue for people. It may be intolerable, and change is necessary."

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in power since 1978 through Cold War division, a civil war, rebellions and an Al-Qaeda insurgency, has also made concessions in the face of protests.

Last week, he announced he would freeze proposed constitutional changes that would have allowed him to stay in office for life, and said he was opposed to hereditary rule.

Tens of thousands nevertheless turned out to protest against him the next day, although the opposition then issued a statement calling for Saleh to implement the promised reforms, but did not call for further protests.

Syria, where membership of the Muslim Brotherhood remains punishable by death, although this is usually commuted to life in prison, has not made any concessions to the opposition and continues to suppress dissent.

However, President Bashar al-Assad said in a rare interview with the Wall Street Journal that the Middle East is diseased with stagnation and its leaders must "upgrade" themselves.

"Real reform is about how to open up society and how to start dialogue," said Assad, who took over from his father Hafez al-Assad in 2000.

In Jordan, King Abdullah II sacked his unpopular prime minister Samir Rifai and told his successor, Maaruf Bakhit, to prioritise reform.

Bakhit opened dialogue with groups including the powerful Islamic Action Front ahead of forming his government, although the Front rejected an offer to join the cabinet.

Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, in power for 21 years and under an international arrest warrant for alleged war crimes in Darfur, has also made overtures to the opposition, who insist on a government of national unity.

Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi, who has ruled with an iron fist since 1969, in January voiced support for Tunisia's revolution shortly after saying Ben Ali should be in power for life.

"But I am afraid this revolution ... could be stolen. There are manoeuvres within the country and by foreign interests," Kadhafi said, playing a similar foreign interference card to Mubarak's new Vice President Omar Suleiman.

Algeria has so far managed to keep a cap on protests against the regime of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, but the opposition is to stage a rally in Algiers on Saturday despite it being banned.

The opposition is demanding the lifting of a 19-year-old state of emergency and a "change of system" despite a series of liberalisation measures announced by Bouteflika a month after deadly food riots in January.

Morocco, like Egypt, has maintained hefty subsidies on basic foodstuffs and gas in a bid to quell popular anger.

Rabat has also launched job creation programmes for graduates, who have vowed to resume protest if they are not soon employed, while the government insists it is "serene."

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