ALGIERS/RABAT (Reuters) - After popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, what about the other three countries in the turbulent swathe of land along Africa’s northern coast?
Analysts are now scrutinising whether Libya, Algeria or Morocco could be the next domino to fall.
The three have much in common with Egypt and Tunisia: They are part of the Arab world, they have large populations of unemployed young people, entrenched leaderships and opposition movements which say it is time for a transition to democracy.
Sustained uprisings in Algeria and Libya, in particular, could have far-reaching implications for the world economy because both are major oil and gas exporters.
But there are also many reasons to believe the unrest will not spread further through north Africa. Here are some questions and answers on the prospects of a revolt happening elsewhere:
Probably not. The events in Tunis and Cairo certainly increased pressure on the Algerian government. Civil society groups, small trade unions and minor political parties have joined forces to press for a change of ruler -- the first time this kind of opposition coalition has existed in two decades. Algeria was rocked by food riots at the start of the year and there have been small political protests.
A small number of demonstrators who turned out in Algiers last Saturday were massively outnumbered by riot police. More protests are planned, but it remains to be seen how effective they will be.
“Widespread demonstrations could upset the delicate balance of the country’s political and economic structure,” the Eurasia Group private think tank said. “The main risk in Algeria is the possibility that unrest would split key sections of the elite.”
But there is no sign yet those protests will become widespread. Algeria’s biggest opposition forces -- Islamist groups which have been banned since the early 1990s but retain influence, and the secular FFS party -- have not joined the protest coalition.
Algeria’s ruling elite has also shown, over nearly a half century in power, a remarkable capacity to adapt to changing circumstances. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika demonstrated this when he agreed to opposition demands to lift a 19-year-old state of emergency.
With about $150 billion (93 billion pounds) in foreign currency reserves and oil selling at around $100 a barrel, the government can use cash to soothe its citizens’ economic grievances.
Ordinary Algerians are wary of any relapse into political turmoil after a political opening in the early 1990s degenerated into a brutal conflict between security forces and Islamist militants that killed an estimated 200,000 people. “Algeria effectively already had its revolution,” said Geoff Porter, an independent U.S. analyst on North Africa. “Few want to risk descending into another decade of chaos.”
Even if mass unrest breaks out, most analysts believe the risk of disruption to oil and gas exports is minimal. Nearly all the energy activity is deep in the Sahara desert and the biggest oilfield town, Hassi Messaoud, is relatively well-off and heavily policed. Since the conflict with Islamist rebels started, there have been no confirmed cases of energy infrastructure being hit.
On the face of it, Libya fits the model of a nation vulnerable to an uprising. Muammar Gaddafi has led the country since 1969, making him the longest-serving ruler on the African continent. There are stark income inequalities. Political parties are banned and there is little room for public dissent.
Minor clashes last month, when people waiting for the government to allocate them new homes seized vacant apartment buildings, showed the potential for disturbances. These were followed by a riot by several hundred people in Benghazi this week.
Below the surface, things are more complex. Libya more closely mirrors an oil-rich Gulf state where an autocratic ruler operate a system of patronage, sharing out wealth from energy exports with his subjects.
Many Libyans are jobless, but the lifting of international sanctions in 2004, the high oil price and state handouts mean most families are enjoying their highest incomes for decades.
Libyan society and public life is built around family and tribal ties, so if there is any challenge to Gaddafi’s rule, it is likely to happen behind the scenes and not in the streets.
Gaddafi may not be universally popular -- least of all around Benghazi -- but many Libyans like his rhetoric about Western ”imperialism“ and the stature he gives them on the international stage.”
However, Libya’s security services maintain a generally very strong grip and a weak opposition is located abroad.
The scene of the latest unrest, Benghazi, is a city where there is a deal of frustration over Gaddafi’s rule. The test for the leader will be whether protests can grow and spread in the manner of Tunisia and Egypt.
Not necessarily. Youths, who make up the majority of the country’s 32 million population, share many of the concerns of their Egyptian and Tunisian peers: They feel that significant efforts to develop the economy over the past 11 years have not yielded enough opportunities and many, especially in rural areas, still dream of a better life in Europe.
Rating agencies Standard & Poor’s and Fitch have said the North African country of 32 million people is the least likely in the region to be affected by the wave of popular unrest.
But the government has not been able to create even half the 250,000 jobs it pledged in 2007 to generate on an annual basis by 2012, according to official data. Unemployment officially hovers around 9 percent and affects 173,200 graduates -- 16.7 percent of total graduates. Many independent analysts and members of parliament say these figures are much higher.
King Mohammed, one of the youngest Arab rulers, has shown a greater sense of initiative than his late father King Hassan in trying to address the social and economic qualms of what he refers to as his “subjects.” Official data shows GDP per capita rose 41 percent between his enthronement in 1999 and 2009.
The government this week nearly doubled funds devoted to state subsidies in order to shield people from rising world prices of fuel and food.
The economy remains vulnerable to weather vagaries in a country where agriculture is the top employer.
Morocco is dogged by strikes by both private and public sector employees and still witnesses sporadic, localised unrest mainly in remote areas, where citizens feel development efforts have either not been evenly allocated or have yet to produce tangible results.
By law, Morocco is a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament. But its constitution accords the king wide prerogatives, from dissolving parliament to the imposition of the state of emergency, and he has say on the appointments of key government portfolios including the prime minister.
A once active debate in the late 1990s over a need for constitutional reform has faded. Priorities for political parties now centre on holding a maximum number of government portfolios or defending their turfs from the poaching of their elected representatives by a newly-created party formed by a classmate of the king, who also was deputy interior minister.
This has alienated the vast majority of Moroccans: Voter turnout at the most recent parliamentary elections stood at 37 percent, the lowest in the country’s modern history.
Driss Benali, a prominent economics lecturer, said: ”Over the last ten years, the system has killed political parties. Morocco is less authoritarian than Tunisia but we have not got the educated of Tunisia neither do we have the active business elite of Egypt.
“The monarchy has the required legitimacy and the king is popular but some in his entourage often tarnish his image. This is a great opportunity for the monarchy to adopt serious constitutional reforms that empower the government and where the king reigns without ruling,” Benali added.
Editing by Giles Elgood