Middle East nations scramble to contain unrest
To track the growing political movements gaining strength from the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia across North Africa and the Middle East, one would be well advised to get a planner.
There were Saturday’s clashes between demonstrators and police in Algeria, now referred to as #feb12 on Twitter, much as Egypt’s uprising shall forever be known as #jan25. New popular protests are scheduled Monday in Bahrain (#feb14) and Iran (#25Bahman). Libya comes next on #feb17, followed by Algeria again on #feb19, Morocco #feb20, Cameroon #feb23 and Kuwait #mar8.
On Sunday, hundreds of protesters in Yemen — a country whose frustrated population has spent too much time in the streets since the Tunisian uprising to be tied down to a single date — marched toward the presidential palace before being halted by police. More demonstrators took to the streets in the southern city of Taizz.
The crowds were clearly energized by the popular uprising that forced Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to resign Friday, and were seeking a similar outcome for Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
“First Mubarak, now Ali!” many of the marchers shouted.
Governments across the Middle East are scrambling to step up political concessions, dole out financial benefits and — when that fails — deploy riot police in an attempt to ease instability and buy time.
But the successful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, where President Zine el Abidine ben Ali was toppled Jan. 14, already have changed the terms of discourse between rulers and the governed, some analysts said. Those revolts, they said, cast doubt on the idea that entrenched Middle Eastern regimes must be preserved at all costs as indispensible barriers to sectarian violence or Islamic extremism.
Instead, protesters from Morocco to Iran are setting aside the region’s traditional religious and geopolitical divides to take on common culprits of corruption, police violence, political repression and vast gaps in wealth.
Though Jordan and Egypt have been in a trench together as the only Arab nations to have signed peace treaties with Israel, thousands of Jordanians flocked to the Egyptian Embassy here Friday in a spontaneous celebration of Mubarak’s resignation.
“It’s not just solidarity with the Egyptians people are feeling,” said Mohammed Masri, analyst at the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan. “They feel the victory of Tunisia and Egypt is their own victory … something that they feel they contributed to. And the regimes of the Arab world must now understand that the Arab people have discovered a new route for political change, that is, taking over the streets.”
In Jordan, some are describing the wave of grass-roots dissent sweeping the region as a new pan-Arabism, like the anti-Israeli, anti-Western fervor that mobilized the region in the 1950s and 1960s, this time directed not against Israel and the U.S. but against Arab regimes that have quashed democratic expression and economic opportunity.
“I think what the Egyptian and the Tunisian people have shown is that we have to take responsibility, and not simply be victims,” Lamis Andoni, a Palestinian American journalist and analyst in Jordan, said in an interview.
“The old ‘wisdom’ of past revolutionaries that liberation from foreign domination precedes the struggle for democracy has fallen,” she wrote in an opinion piece for the Al Jazeera channel.
In Algeria on Saturday, thousands of police officers deployed at May 1 Square kept all but a few thousand demonstrators out of the plaza in protests aimed at forcing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika from power, expanding job opportunities and lifting the nation’s emergency laws. About 400 people were arrested.
Monday’s protests could be even more tense: Iran has banned the demonstration, put at least one opposition leader under house arrest and blocked Internet searches related to the planned rally. “There is a spreading effect of Egypt,” said secular nationalist publisher Amir Kaviani in Tehran, “but I think the conductor of all these so-called uprisings in the Middle East is sitting in the White House.”
Still, the planned protest seems to have domestic support: More than 50,000 fans have signed on to Iran’s 25 Bahman Facebook page.
In Bahrain, where a Sunni Muslim ruling family governs a Shiite Muslim majority, the government recently offered 1,000 dinars (about $2,650) to each family as a means of offsetting economic complaints. But Monday has been declared a “Day of Rage” by protesters, who are demanding the release of political prisoners, an end of torture, and reform of the judicial system.
Kuwait managed to postpone a demonstration triggered by the recent death of a young man who was apparently tortured by the police by announcing last week the resignation of the interior minister. The rally is now set for March 8.
Many analysts say the wealthy dynasties of the Persian Gulf for the most part are not likely to be seriously rattled by public protests, but are more worried that the collapse of long-term, reliable allies such as Mubarak could undermine regional stability and strengthen Iran.
At the same time, stability will come only at the price of considerably speeding up political reforms, said Turad Amry, a Saudi political analyst.
“I think we will notice more expedition to reform, and more listening to the people. You will find more freedom of the press, which we are already enjoying more of,” he said. “However, people are complaining about the health sector, housing, unemployment and other issues, and I think there will be some expenditures and reforms in those areas.”
Egypt and Tunisia, said analyst Masri, by providing a model of leadership change that did not immediately usher in sectarian violence or Islamic extremism, removed the chief boogeymen typically raised by Arab leaders against democratic change.
“It turns out that threat used by the political authorities in the Arab countries, threatening their people with the consequences of democracy, collapsed very quickly,” he said. “The fears are gone.”
Special correspondents Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran and Meris Lutz in Beirut contributed to this report.