The Middle East is boiling. Unprecedented popular uprisings have shaken up a number of countries, especially Tunisia, Egypt, and Bahrain. Demonstrators, taking to the streets to protest their dismal living conditions, refused to be beaten back, swelling until the autocratic presidents in Tunisia and Egypt were driven from power. The family-run government in Bahrain is fighting back, hoping its security forces and hold on power will be strong enough to outlast the protests. The uprisings in the three countries have had many similarities, but there have also been significant differences. All three face rising unemployment as a result of the global recession. They were experiencing growing gaps between rich and poor, stifled free speech, repression of the opposition, widespread corruption, and continuing autocratic control behind a veneer of democratic openings.
Tunisia never seemed to be particularly shaky. It was a country that seemed to be doing many things right: universal education for men and women, low military spending, and positive economic growth. A large middle class was developing, and the country had become a popular tourist destination for Europeans. The government was authoritarian but also determinedly secular and pro-Western. The cracks, however, were larger than anyone thought: President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali had carefully hidden the extent to which illness had weakened his control of the government; his ties with other centers of power, such as the military and police, had withered; and corruption within his family had become more flagrant.
Although the percentage of youth looking for work was lower than in neighboring countries, more were university graduates with higher expectations. Their frustration and anger became unbearable. The desperate act of one of them, Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire in front of a police station in a sad town in Tunisia’s interior, became the symbol and catalyzing spark for the whole generation. His act of self-immolation might have passed unnoticed, but it was captured on a cell-phone camera, and soon the rest of Tunisia and the whole world got to know about it.
Technology, therefore, played a role, as did the intrepid Arabic news channel Al Jazeera, whose reporters blended in with the demonstrators and sent out regular reports to electrifying effect. Activists used Twitter and Facebook to mobilize street demonstrations and spread warnings on police tactics and concentrations. WikiLeaks, moreover, had weeks earlier published the U.S. ambassador’s confidential reports of corruption within the president’s family. These had the effect of turning gossip and rumor into fact and fueling popular anger.
Tunisia’s small but professional army had always stayed out of politics. When Ben Ali ordered it to reinforce the security police in putting down the riots, the army refused to deploy or fire on fellow citizens. The United States, to its credit, was ahead of Arab and European governments in expressing unambiguous support for the protests, quickly shifting from calling for calm to recognizing the legitimacy of demonstrators’ demands. In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama stated, “Tonight, let us be clear: the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia and supports the democratic aspirations of all peoples.” His words both affirmed and encouraged the protesters.
Sparked by coverage of Tunisians’ success in ousting their dictator, Egyptians poured into the streets of all of the country’s major cities, demanding that President Hosni Mubarak, 82 and pharaoh for 30 years, step down. The specter of another 30 years under his son added to their anger. Still, the regime could not have been expected to collapse as easily as Tunisia’s had, and indeed, it did not. Mubarak was not as alone and isolated as Ben Ali, and his family was not so visibly rapacious. He was from and of the armed forces, the largest and most cohesive institution in Egypt, and part of the proud military tradition that overthrew King Farouk, ended British colonial influence, and brought independence under Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar el-Sadat, and Mubarak.
Senior military officers initially stood with him, quietly supporting his transfer of governing power to his newly appointed vice president Omar Suleiman. But when strong-arm tactics by security irregulars failed to suppress the massive demonstrations in Tahrir Square, the senior officer corps, who regarded themselves, as foremost as guardians of the first Egyptian revolution, sent Mubarak into retirement. Egypt is now undergoing two transitions: the first from Mubarak to a more inclusive government; the second from direct military rule to a diluted but still powerful military influence in Egyptian affairs.
As Tunisia cooled and Egyptian smoldered, Bahrain, facing many of the same social and economic problems of the other two also ignited. The Sunni Khalifa dynasty, headed by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, is fighting an uprising, stoked by the island nation’s Shia majority, which is demanding that a true constitutional monarchy replace the current government. Hamad is supported by an oligarchy of Sunni and business interests, but he can give into Shia demands only so much without his family running the risk of being totally swept away by a Shia-dominated government. With its survival at stake, the regime has already offered a dialogue between the opposition and the crown prince, while at the same time promising to use force to quell protests if necessary. The security forces, composed largely of South Asian mercenaries and backed by a Sunni-led army, will not have the same reluctance to fire on citizen demonstrators as the Tunisian and Egyptian militaries. Moreover, neighboring monarchies, particularly Saudi Arabia, with its own restive Shia population in the Eastern Province, see Bahrain’s current government as their first line of defense against unrest in their own countries and may try to help Hamad retain control.
The United States has host-nation support agreements with all the Gulf States; Bahrain does not stand out in that regard. It has hosted a U.S. naval presence since the late 1940s. Barack Obama called on Bahrain’s leaders to forswear violence, respect the people’s right to protest, and hasten reforms. It appears that the administration will more or less follow its same playbook as for Egypt.
Protests in Libya, ruled by Gadhafi since a 1969 coup, began in January when demonstrators, fed up with delays, broke into a housing project the government was building and occupied it. Gadhafi's government responded with a $24 billion fund for housing and development. A month later, more demonstrations were sparked when police detained relatives of those killed in an alleged 1996 massacre at the Abu Salim prison.
The noise and sweep of mass demonstrations and the fall of autocrats are what have made headlines, but the hard work of transitioning to more open political systems is equally important. This process is under way in Tunisia and Egypt. In Tunisia, a civilian transitional government is in charge. In Egypt, the military high command is supervising both the transitional government and the reform process. In Bahrain and elsewhere where protest movements have sprung up, a chaos is certainly prevalent but the outcome is still uncertain.
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