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What protesters in Arab nations do -- and don't -- have in common

By Josh Levs, CNN
Protesters in Egypt are responding in large part to a widening gap between rich and poor, one expert says.
Protesters in Egypt are responding in large part to a widening gap between rich and poor, one expert says.
  • Analyst: The protesters "all want the same" as they oppose growing inequality
  • Analyst: "There's a feeling a lot of people are being left behind"
  • Differences involve government structure and population makeup

(CNN) -- Protesters who have taken to the streets in several Arab nations of North Africa are angry at their own governments, and lashing out over some specific problems in their countries. But what they're looking for -- and, in the end, what inspired them to stand up and demonstrate -- is very similar, experts on the region said Thursday.

"They all want the same," said Emile Hokayem, with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in the Middle East. "They're all protesting about growing inequalities, they're all protesting against growing nepotism. The top of the pyramid was getting richer and richer."

Speaking to CNN about the recent demonstrations that have occurred, to varying extent, in Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia in northern Africa, and Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula, Hokayem said the protesters were also standing up "against a high level of police brutality."

"Fundamentally it's a question of dignity. People's dignity has been under assault for decades," he said.

Juan Cole, a Middle East historian at the University of Michigan and a blogger, put it this way: "There's a feeling a lot of people are being left behind."

The protesters are driven by economic frustrations, "discontent with authoritarian character of the regime," and the "feeling that there's no real representation" -- although to different degrees in each nation, Cole said.

Across all four countries, the protest movements are "largely driven by young people" and include a "high proportion of the educated middle class," he said. There's "a feeling amongst that middle class that they're not being given the opportunities in life that their degrees warrant -- what historians would call a 'blocked elite.'"

The worldwide economic crisis helped trigger the demonstrations by adding to economic pressures at home, and showing up in things like petroleum and food prices, Cole said.

But there are differences among the protest movements as well.

In Egypt, "the state probably has done more to protect people" from rising food prices by offering subsidies, Cole said. The Egyptian economy was stagnant for decades, but in the past 10 years started to grow -- creating bigger differences between rich and poor, Cole said.

"And I think some of the protest is over the ways in which the labor movements have gotten left behind and haven't shared in the economic growth" in that country, he said.

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In Algeria, where protests have been relatively small, the demonstrations "look to me like an after-effect of the civil war that Algeria had between the fundamentalists and the secular generalists," Cole added.

Yemen has also faced great internal strife, which serves as a background to the wave of protests, he said. The dire poverty in Yemen has also left questions about how many people have access to water, he said. "It's a deeply poverty-stricken country which is getting worse off. ... People are desperate there."

In Tunisia, the government was run by an especially small clique, "a kind of mafia state," which people are railing against, Cole said. "The tightness of that clique and the way in which it dominated the economy is beyond anything you see elsewhere. People just weren't being let into the system to benefit."

Hokayem said that "the key differences have to do with the makeup of these societies." For example, "Egypt is more diverse, a much bigger country," while Tunisia has a "pretty homogeneous population."

Also, the military plays a different role in the different societies, he said. In Tunisia, it is "small and underfunded" and not a major instrument of power, unlike in Egypt, where the military is a much bigger player, he said.

But while the context for each protest movement may be unique, "at the end of the day, the real driver is psychology," Hokayem said.

He noted two more key similarities among the protest movements: "The Islamists don't seem to be on the forefront in any of those countries," he said. "Up to now, it has been a mix of separate leftist and moderate Islamic movements."

And unlike other protests seen in the Arab world in recent years, the protests aren't against the West -- nor do they seem inspired by the West. "The West is irrelevant in a way," he said. Grievances at home "are driving all of this."