Fearless protesters challenge regimes around Middle East

A wall of fear has come down.

Across the Arab world, people living under the thumb of repressive leaders are rising up against the rulers who once seemed omnipotent.

They are using the Internet to network and spread the word. They are watching themselves on satellite television. They are drawing strength from the hyperactive energy of the frustrated young people dismissed and discarded by their governments.

It is a contagious spirit.


“I lost all the fear when I saw people killed by cops during the demonstrations,” said Ahmad Chibel, a 30-year-old technology consultant who took part in the protests that overthrew Tunisian strongman Zine el Abidine ben Ali. “I had courage when I saw people on the streets. I lost all the fear because I felt the rage of the people and saw the brutality of the police.”

They are not quite sure what they want. But from North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, they know they want change. And their wrath and their courage are creating a new form of Arab unity.

“It’s like a transition moment in the Arab world,” said Mohammed Abu Rumman, a political researcher at the University of Jordan, in Amman, where protests erupted Friday. “It’s the influence of the Tunisian domino, and it will not stop. It will go to other Arab states.”

The uprisings are having a ricochet effect across the Arab world. People are watching the events unfolding on television and Facebook and identifying with the people in the streets.

“I was with my friends on Facebook, and we encouraged each other,” said Dali ben Salem, a 25-year-old intern at a pharmacy in Tunis, the Tunisian capital. “The solidarity helped me to face the fear.”

And whether or not Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak manages to survive what one analyst called a political “tsunami” that is enveloping the Arab world, things will never return to normal, analysts said.

“It’s political challenge to autocratic systems that have degraded and dehumanized people and humiliated them to the point where they just can’t take it anymore and they finally started to erupt,” said Rami Khouri, a commentator and analyst affiliated with the American University of Beirut.

“That’s combined with intense social and economic pressures and disparities which are accentuated by the lavish lifestyles of the rich who made their money by being close to the regime.”


Opposition activists, human rights advocates and international bodies such as the United Nations have for years warned that the continued social and political stagnation in the Arab world would create the conditions for a social explosion. Prodded by the United States and the European Union, some of the regimes have made halfhearted efforts at reform.

But many consider it all too little too late. They are already comparing 2011 to 1989, the year authoritarian regimes of the former Soviet Union began to collapse. The wall has come down. Like the youths who braved the truncheons of the Stasi henchmen in Dresden and Leipzig more than 20 years ago, they are making a stand with generational repercussions.

“It’s a revolution, a democratic revolution that we were supposed to have experienced 20 years ago,” said Abdullah Faqih, a political scientist in Sana, the capital of Yemen, where large and mostly peaceful protests have broken out against the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Perplexing some analysts, the uprisings are unfolding in a region that has in recent years experienced broad economic improvements and rising standards of living, at least as far as official numbers. But in countries such as Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria, many have long complained that the growth has been uneven, benefiting a select few while leaving many behind.


But most see in the uprisings something more than just worries about material gain. There’s the perception of injustice and mistreatment.

“It isn’t just about the economy,” said Charles Dunbar, a former U.S. diplomat to the Middle East. “It’s just general anger.”

The anger is now threatening to overwhelm Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt for nearly 30 years and remains one of Washington’s strongest allies in the region.

Analysts say the regimes have risked it all by ignoring the warning cries of their reformers, who have long beseeched them to change their ways before it was too late. They were ignored. Even after the Tunisia uprising ousted Ben Ali, and observers began speculating about the possibility of uprisings in other countries, Egyptian officials insisted that it wouldn’t happen in their country. They were wrong.


“They have strongly underestimated the anger and frustration on the true Arab street,” said Firas Atraqchi, an Egyptian Canadian journalist and a professor at the American University in Cairo. “This is the silent majority that are no longer silent.”

As in Tunisia, the traditional opposition groups are playing a secondary role in the uprisings, even rushing to catch up. Tunis’ Nahda, an Islamist party, appears to have played absolutely no role in the uprisings. Muslim Brotherhood branches in Egypt and Jordan appear to be at least two steps behind the protesters.

And young people, long derided as apolitical and apathetic, are racing ahead, redefining themselves, creating a new political consciousness built around Facebook instead of a political leader or ideology and demanding nothing short of a toppling of the regime and the downfall of the ruling elite.

Western officials reflexively fear Middle East revolutions, in part because of Iran’s 1979 uprising that established the Islamic Republic, a source of extremist ideology throughout the region. But many of the Arab world’s Islamists don’t tout the Iranian model.


Instead, they point to Turkey’s example, where a moderately Islamist political party untainted by corruption has improved the economy and increased the country’s international influence while expanding democratic participation.

Popular uprisings aren’t guaranteed victory. Hungarians chafing against Soviet rule in 1956 and Iranians protesting political repression in 2009 lost their fear, only to be beaten back into submission by repressive governments that gave no ground.

But observers in the Arab world say the Tunisian role model did not inspire just because it led to Ben Ali’s departure; it also provided a potential road map toward real democracy.

Abu Rumman explained: “The Arabs began to understand that they could reach democracy by going to the street.”


Special correspondent Sihem Hassasini in Tunis contributed to this report.