Though Syria previously looked relatively sheltered from unrest elsewhere in the region, protests, now in their second week, are shaking the legitimacy of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The violence perpetrated by security forces is likely to undermine promises of reform and political change, putting a question mark over the ultimate survival of the regime.
The “days of rage” sweeping through the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have raised questions about the possibility of a similar movement erupting in China. At a glance, the ingredients for uprising appear to be present. Online calls for a “Jasmine Revolution” in China resulted in a massive staging of security forces at the planned protest sites, which could be taken as a sign of the Communist Party’s insecure grip on power. Like several of the MENA governments, China’s ruling elite is plagued by corruption and is preparing for a transfer of power. Inequality has devolved to Sub-Saharan levels, and the political system provides few outlets for popular grievances to be aired. However, China is unlikely to face a popular uprising for six reasons, discussed in more depth in our latest China Monthly.
The political situation throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is still in flux, with a rotating cast of countries carrying on “days of rage” and several regimes, including Libya’s, teetering. The overthrow of the Egyptian and Tunisian leaders has energized populations and opposition groups—leaders will no longer be able to rely solely on the old playbook of repression and subsidies. Regardless of how the political developments play out, all the regimes in the region have been challenged, and the populations will not be content with business as usual. In fact, many members of Tunisia’s caretaker government resigned this week as protesters demanded a government untainted by members of the old regime. In our latest MENA Focus, we consider what the recent political shake-up could mean for regional economies, their neighbors and their trading partners.
An occasional roundup of what’s online from RGE’s executive editor:
The Return of “Pushing Democracy” – Peter Baker
Ripples from the crises in Tunisia and Egypt have been making their way across the MENA region, and governments have used various tactics to placate their populace. Some have lowered prices and increased subsidies, others made pledges for political reform or responded with a security crackdown. In many cases, especially for fuel importers, any costly giveaways via subsidies or social transfers may further strain already weak fiscal accounts.
Editor’s note: For our most up-to-date coverage of the rapidly changing events in the Middle East and North Africa, see these RGE Critical Issues: “Mubarak Pledges Not to Run Again: Will it Be Enough for the Protestors?” “Will Ripples From Tunisia and Egypt Spread Through Middle East Governments and Markets?”
The Thai government’s PR department released a sanguine report on Thailand’s Q2 GDP data yesterday, glossing over the economic impact of the violent protests that flared up in April and May:
Thailand’s gross domestic product (GDP) in the second quarter of this year has expanded by 9.1%, setting the highest record of half-year figure in 13 years, according to the National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB).
Source: “Half-year GDP hits 13-yrs highest“, National News Bureau of Thailand
A look at the data reveals however that real GDP actually contracted in Q2 2010 by 5.6%, not seasonally adjusted. The 9.1% growth reported by the National News Bureau refers to year-over-year growth. By this metric, Thailand’s expansion is really nothing surprising considering GDP rose from a very low base formed after the deepest contraction since the 1997-98 financial crisis. When the bar is set low, it’s quite easy to jump the bar. What’s more striking is, Thailand failed to even meet that bar in some respects:
One of the many theories about North Korea which appears to float on thin air (and make no mistake, most of them do) goes something like this: China, the one country with real leverage on crazy Kim and his gulag, loves the status quo. Like that guy in your neighborhood who walks around with the pit bull straining against his leash, the Chinese parade their influence on the Pygmy of Pyongyang, as if to remind the neighborhood that without the strong hand of his masters in Beijing, Kim Jong-il’s steroid fed army of Stalinist zealots would run amok all over East Asia.
Thailand has continued its struggle to expand democracy since the absolute monarchy was ousted in a 1932 coup—when Siam became Thailand. Most coups and protests in Thailand have been relatively bloodless compared to the Philippines, where election violence is the norm. But once in a while, the death toll stacks up to heights that terrify Thais. As of May 18, 37 people had died in two months of protests, the bloodiest since the “Black May” protests in May 17-20, 1992, which killed at least 52 according to the official count.
On March 26, a South Korean warship, the Choenan, sank in the Yellow Sea after a powerful explosion. Though more than one-half of the ship’s sailors were rescued, 46 perished. While the final results of the subsequent investigation by the government and the public and military intelligence agencies are expected to be announced as early as mid-May, South Korea’s defense ministry has confirmed that a powerful explosion outside the warship was the main cause of the incident. Based on the evidence thus far, South Korea and many external media sources have been suspicious about North Korea’s involvement. Critics who strongly believe in the North’s involvement argue that the North wanted to use the Choenan incident as a display of military power to boost global attention prior to returning to the six-party talks. Nevertheless, North Korea has so far strongly denied its involvement and reacted strongly against such suspicions. Even if the investigation reveals that the allegations are true, South Korea’s government would not have many options to respond.