WITH only 860,000 souls, Djibouti is a miniature state in a big, bad neighbourhood. Yet the country is vital for the arid region around the Horn of Africa. Its port is a lifeline for its giant neighbour, Ethiopia, which is hemmed in by Somalia and lost its access to the sea when Eritrea became independent in 1993. France keeps the 13th demi-brigade of the Foreign Legion there—about 2,600 troops and airmen. And over the past decade, America has set up counter-terrorism and counter-piracy bases with 2,200 men and women.
Most foreigners are warmly welcomed by President Ismail Guelleh, who is conspicuously seeking to model his country on Dubai. He came to power in 1999 and his People’s Rally for Progress has ruled Djibouti since independence from France in 1977. On billboards in the capital, Djibouti Ville, he declares, “nous croyons” (we believe). Increasingly, the president seems to believe in his own abilities. He changed the constitution last year to allow himself at least six more years. Elections are due in April.
Djibouti’s fractured opposition was buoyed by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt as well as the protests across the Red Sea in Yemen. On February 18th it demonstrated against the government’s grasping ways, hoping to exert pressure on Mr Guelleh to level the playing field before the election. But a peaceful protest turned nasty after police arrived. At least two people died and opposition leaders were briefly imprisoned. If protests got more serious and the port shut down, Ethiopia might be tempted to invade. The French would probably beat them to it though. That would make the small state even more brittle.
Djibouti is ethnically Somali and it serves as a refuge for Somali money, intellectuals and clan leaders fleeing their capital, Mogadishu. Ethiopia is said to run a network of spies. Somaliland, another neighbour, has increasingly close trade links with Djibouti. Relations with Eritrea, on the other side, are tetchy. The two countries have a border dispute.
The pressing question on the minds of outsiders is whether they should continue to back Mr Guelleh or allow history to take its course. It is not clear to what extent the events in North African countries are affecting the rest of the continent. But it is perhaps telling that, in addition to Djibouti, Arab-influenced Sudan has had to bow to demands for greater accountability. Its president, Omar al-Bashir, announced this week that he would not stand for re-election. But after more than two decades in power, Mr Bashir might find it all too easy to renege on his pledge.
from the print edition | Middle East & Africa