They appear increasingly rattled by the unfolding events in Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab world.

From the crowded, run-down streets of Cairo to the oil-financed halls of power in Kuwait, Arab leaders appear increasingly rattled by the unfolding events in Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab world, where men continued to set themselves on fire — two more in Egypt on January 18, and a third who was stopped.

Though the streets of Cairo, Algiers and other Arab cities around the region were calm, the acts of self-immolation served as a reminder that the core complaints of economic hardship and political repression that led to the Tunisian uprising resonated strongly across the Middle East.

“You have leaders who have been in power for a very long time, one party controlling everything, marginalisation of the opposition, no transfer of power, plans for succession, small groups running the business, vast corruption,” said Emad Gad, a political scientist at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “All of this makes the overall environment ripe for an explosion at any second.”

The differences in each country

But while there is widespread anticipation about a revolutionary contagion, particularly in Egypt and Algeria, where there have been angry and violent protests, political analysts said that each country is different, making such conclusions premature. Egypt lacks the broad and educated middle class of Tunisia, while in Algeria the middle class failed to join the angry young men in rioting, regional experts said.

In Jordan, an Islamist opposition party, the Islamic Action Front, issued a demand that the offices of prime minister and other high officials be made elective instead of appointive, as they are now. But like the other outbursts, it quickly died away.

“For all the sound and fury, it doesn't look like much political dividend will come out of what happened in Algeria, in the short term,” said Hugh Roberts, an independent scholar and a specialist on North Africa based here. “It looks like it has gone quiet. It was a big blast of angry, hot air, but in an unfocused way, which leaves most things the same.”

So for now, the most pronounced impact from the unexpected Tunisian uprising is a lingering sense of uncertainty. That is itself either unnerving or exhilarating, depending on one's perspective, in a region sitting on the fault lines of religious strife, political repression and economic uncertainty, experts said.

“We did not expect Tunisia to go the direction it has. Who had Tunisia on the mind a few weeks ago?” said Amr Hamzawy, research director with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “The ingredients are partially there for it to happen again, but we just do not know.”

Some Arab leaders have ordered security crackdowns to keep calm in the streets, and offered some symbolic gestures. In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad backed off the imposition of austerity measures. In Kuwait, the emir doled out money.

Economic summit

In Egypt, where organisers are calling for a nationwide protest on January 25, officials struggled to project a sense of calm and normalcy, while stepping up talk of economic reform and government accountability. Arab leaders have also said they will focus on combating unemployment when they meet later this week at an economic summit meeting in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik.

Fahmy Howeidy, an Egyptian political expert and newspaper columnist, said that while he did not believe conditions were ripe for a similar uprising in Egypt, the government was keenly aware that “what happened in Tunisia has definitely created a different atmosphere. It convinced people that they can revolt in the streets, and that these regimes are not as strong or as mighty as they appear.”

Before the riots in Tunisia turned into a mass uprising against the rule of the long-time autocratic president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, it appeared that either Egypt or Algeria stood a greater chance of some kind of mass public revolt. For years, both have suffered from sclerotic political systems led by aging presidents, with support from the military. For years, both have confronted protests over difficult economic conditions and widespread youth unemployment.

But Mr. Hamzawy noted that in Tunisia the middle class and the trade unions joined protests that initially broke out over economic complaints, and helped transform the discontent into calls for political change. In Egypt, where the leadership continues to rely on a decades-old emergency law that allows arrest without charge, there is a lot of room for free and critical speech, offering a safety valve for expression that did not exist in Tunisia, he said.

In Egypt, he said, the array of interests that benefit from corruption is much wider than in Tunisia, where it was restricted to a small circle around the president. That, he said, means there are more people with an interest in preserving the system. And finally, he said, the military in Tunisia was not politicised and did not have any experience in securing city streets, unlike in Egypt, where the military has risen to the government's defence before, and most likely would again. In addition, Mr. Hamzawy said that the protests that have racked Egypt recently have mostly been by workers for economic reasons, and that the government effectively bought them off with concessions before they began making political demands.

In Algeria

In Algeria, Mr. Roberts said, there are two primary differences with Tunisia that make comparisons imperfect. The first, he said, was that in Tunisia the riots spread all over the country and eventually involved different elements of society all on the same side. “That gave the movement its moral power,” he said.

By comparison, he said, “In Algeria, that never happened. There was no real support from trade unions, in fact none at all as far as one can see, and there was a good deal of middle class hostility to them because of the destruction. The guys rioting were desperate, angry young men with no political perspective at all.”

But more fundamentally, he said, Algeria is not as repressive as Tunisia was. “It is not an autocracy, it is an oligarchy,” he said, explaining that in addition to the President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, there are multiple power centres, like the military, the intelligence services and the elite bureaucrats.

That, he said, meant that unlike in Tunisia there is no one target of public ire, and no public sense that protests would help to dislodge those at fault. “Even though Bouteflika is unpopular, people know their problems do not simply come down to him,” he said. “You have a situation where there is a great deal of discontent, including in the middle class, but no one has any prescription for how to deal with it.” (Mona El-Naggar reported from Cairo, and Michael Slackman from Berlin.) — © New York Times News Service

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