Global Education

Protests, bloodshed, and hope in the Middle East

By Lizzie Odvarka
Published: March 2011

On December 17, 2010, a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of a government building to protest police corruption. He almost certainly had no idea what kind of effect his single act would have.
The next day, unrest broke out in his country, with protesters demanding an end to corruption, one-party rule, and poor living and economic conditions.  The unrest crossed into neighboring Algeria ten days later, and then spread like wildfire into Libya, Jordan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and other, mostly Arab, nations.
The Tunisian revolt ended on January 14, in what appeared to be a victory for the protesters, when the Tunisian president, Ben Ali, fled the country for exile in Saudi Arabia.
Protests continued, however, demanding that Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi resign and the ruling party be dissolved. Both demands were met on February 27 and March 9, respectively. Unrest continues, however, and more than 200 have died.
The Tunisian revolution is fairly emblematic of the unrest, which is protesting, generally, authoritarian regimes, corruption, and economic stagnation.
One other country has successfully undergone a revolution: Egypt. Protests that began on January 25 quickly evolved into a gigantic movement that included the occupation of Tahrir, or Liberation, Square.
Despite attacks on the protesters made by police and government thugs, the protesters held on to the massive plaza for weeks, eventually resulting in the resignation of Hosni Mubarak as president, transferring all power to a provisional military council.
The council has carried out most of the protesters’ demands, including the dissolution of the rubber-stamp parliament and the hated secret police and the release of political prisoners. Martial law has not yet been repealed, but the council promises to. Constitutional referendums and elections are pending. There are believed to have been almost 700 deaths.
In Jordan, leftists, trade unionists, and Islamists demonstrated, starting on January 14, demanding improved living standards, an end to corruption, and the popular election of a prime minister. King Abdullah has formed a new government and asked it to “take quick, concrete, and practical steps to launch a genuine political reform process.”
Bahrain, a tiny, relatively wealthy island nation north of Saudi Arabia, has not escaped the turmoil. Initial protests sought to secure greater political freedom and human rights. Following police violence against protesters, resulting in several deaths, the opposition’s goals expanded to the abolition of the Sunni monarchy that rules the mostly Shi’ite country.
The stationing of the US Fifth Fleet in the country, fears that Iran could take advantage of the chaos to gain influence or control in the country that it has historical claims to, and the stationing of Saudi Arabian forces in the country at the request of King Al Khalifa, further complicate the situation.
Iran has already made significant gains thanks to the chaos. Iranian ships have entered the Mediterranean Sea for the first time since its revolution in 1979, and Western powers are concerned that potential Shi’ite gains, in Bahrain, Yemen, or other countries, could further expand its influence.
But while Iran’s government declares its support for the protesters in other nations, it is facing its most serious opposition since the abortive Green Revolution of 2009.
The government-organized celebration of the 32nd anniversary of the Iranian Revolution was poorly attended, and opposition leaders called for protests on the 14th. Despite the arrests of aides to opposition leaders Mousavi and Karroubi and the use of violence against protesters, up to a third of a million marched in Tehran alone, chanting, “Mubarak, Ben Ali, now it’s time for Seyed Ali [Khamenei].”
Iranian Parmida Maghsoudlou, a senior at South, voiced her support for the uprisings, saying that the protests are “a way of standing up against the dictatorship in the name of a republic in Iran.
“The government is a one-man government that controls every aspect in people’s lives—he should be stopped and this is the way of telling him, as well as the world, how the people feel and what they are able to do for freedom.”
Yemen is not only racked by protests, but may be coming apart at the seams. Home to perhaps the most powerful branch of Al-Qaeda and threatened by a secessionist rebellion in the South and a Shi’ite uprising in the North, its president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is rapidly losing support in all sections of society.
Leaders of his own tribe have abandoned him, and thousands of protesters have taken to the streets, demanding his resignation.
Saleh, who has ruled for 30 years, has stated that he won’t run for another term, but protests have continued nevertheless. On Friday, thousands gathered in the capital of Sana’a. The peaceful protest quickly became a bloodbath as snipers fired on protesters and children from the rooftops as police blocked escape routes using tear gas and flaming barricades.
A shocking 46 were found dead and hundreds were wounded. Mohammad al-Sabri, an opposition spokesman, calls it a massacre, blaming Saleh for the bloodshed.
Upon learning of the tragedy, President Obama demanded that Saleh publicly announce his consent to peaceful demonstrations. Instead, Saleh has declared a 30-day state of emergency that prohibits citizens from carrying weapons and allows his security forces to intervene in the protests, creating new tensions between Yemen and the United States.
Moammar al-Gaddafi, however, makes Saleh seem meek in comparison. The 40-year ruler of Libya, he has ruthlessly cracked down on protesters demanding massive political and economic changes.
Gaddafi loyalists have violently crushed uprisings in the capital, Tripoli, but lost control of much of the country’s East in the first few days of unrest. Unlike other countries, Libya’s uprising has evolved into a fully-fledged rebellion. Initially, rebel forces drove deep into the West, making it appear for a time that they might even seize Tripoli.
Mercenaries and loyal military units counterattacked, however, and the rebels have lost much of their gains over the past week. On March 17, the UN Security Council approved a no-fly zone over Libya, authorizing willing nations to intervene in Libya to protect civilian lives.
Several nations, including France and the United States, which launched missiles at several targets on the Libyan coast, intervened starting on March 21.
The total death toll for all the protests and revolutions is over 11,000, of which at least 6,000 are Libyan.
It remains to be seen whether the Libyan rebellion or any of the uprisings will succeed, but protesters seem willing to lay down their lives, if necessary, to secure the basic rights and freedoms that most of the Western world enjoys.

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