Protests Continue in the Arab World

Bahrain Pearl Square

photo: Associated Press / Attacks by police attacks left 8 people dead and hundreds inured in Bahrain’s Pearl Square.

Tamara Wing

Staff Writer

Egypt

Protests continue in the streets of Egypt more than a week after President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation.  The “Facebook Revolution” appears to have been replaced by a workers’ revolution as police, bank employees, hotel workers, and laborers from nearly all other sectors are on strike, demanding acceptable reforms in this new, post-Mubarak Egypt.  The Supreme Council of the armed forces was left in control after the president’s departure; the army is urging Egyptians to maintain order and return to work so that Egypt will not slide into a lawless state before its new government is voted into power.

A commonly voiced concern among the Egyptian people surrounds the possible outcomes of September’s elections.   Under Mubarak, opposition parties were all but powerless.  New political groups and parties who hope to run in the 2011 elections have only seven months to organize, announce a candidate, and campaign for public support before elections are held.  Groups are quickly being organized, however, with issue platforms from women’s rights, to workers’ rights, to human rights.  Other Egyptians are less optimistic, expressing fear that September will come too quickly and that the only viable candidates will come out of the National Democratic Party (Mubarak’s party) or from the formerly-banned Muslim Brotherhood whose members joined protesters on the third day with a promise that they would not run a candidate in the upcoming elections.

It will be fascinating to see who the Egyptian people claim as their new leaders in the coming months and how tightly they will hold to their ideals of human rights and democratic reform.

Libya

New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick commented on February 20, “The crackdown in Libya has proven the bloodiest of the recent government actions.”  Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s ruler since the 1969 coup, is said to be using African mercenaries and two Libyan Army Special Forces brigades against the demonstrators.  Libyan protesters have been calling for Gaddafi’s ouster since February 15.  Human Rights Watch puts the death toll of protesters at 233 since protests began but says that it is a “conservative” figure; one doctor reported over 100 deaths from just one hospital in Benghazi.  Benghazi’s and Tripoli’s hospitals and morgues are reportedly being overwhelmed.

Verifying news out of Libya has been difficult under the ban against foreign journalists and the rolling phone/internet blackouts imposed by Gaddafi’s government.  When video does make it out of Libya, it often supports eyewitness claims of mercenaries and elite soldiers who have used live ammunition against peaceful crowds at protests and funerals.  These scenes have largely been condemned by the world as “massacres.”  Hospital workers testify that many of those killed suffered high-caliber gunshots to the head and neck.  Reports came out late Sunday claiming that scores of wounded and dead were brought to hospitals with gunshot and rocket-propelled grenade wounds. Habib al-Obaidi, head of the ICU in a major Benghazi hospital, told Reuters by phone, “One of the victims was obliterated after being hit by an RPG to the abdomen.”

William Hague, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, has expressed outrage at Gaddafi’s use of mercenaries and army snipers against unarmed protesters.  In recent days, Britain has tried to distance itself from Gaddafi’s regime despite the close business relationship forged by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2004.  As partners in the Global War on Terror, Britain has been trading arms in exchange for access to Libyan oil fields.

Presently, unconfirmed reports are coming out claiming that Libya’s envoy to the Arab League has resigned in protest over the regime’s shocking use of force against the people of Libya.  Libya’s ambassador to China appeared on Al Jazeera TV to announce his resignation and to call on all other diplomatic staff to resign.   While on the air, he claimed that Gaddafi’s sons had feuded and that Colonel Gaddafi himself had left Libya but these reports have not been confirmed

Bahrain

Calling for political and economic reforms and religious equality, citizens of Bahrain have been protesting in the capital city of Manama since February 14.  Over the first few days of protests, police used tear gas and rubber bullets against the crowds, resulting in two deaths and dozens of injuries. At 3 a.m. on February 17, police attacked a crowd of people sleeping under tents at Pearl Square.  Armed with tear gas and batons, police drove the people out of the square, beating protesters as well as medical workers who were responding to the injured.  For two days, police and military forces battled unarmed protesters for occupation of Pearl Square, resulting in the deaths of eight people; several hundred others sustained significant injuries in the attacks.  On February 19, on orders of Bahrain’s crown prince and deputy supreme commander of the armed forces, police and military withdrew from Pearl Square.  The square was quickly reclaimed by young Bahrainis who installed barriers and sound systems.  Protesters have since been joined by labor unions and teachers who have declared a labor strike until the issues of human rights and political reforms are addressed.

Opposition groups met on Sunday to discuss their demands which will be presented to the leaders of Bahrain.  In addition to equal rights for people of all religions and the release of political prisoners, protesters want a more representative democratic state.

Bahrain’s government is a close ally to the U.S. government as home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.  This strategic base allows the U.S. to protect its shipping interests in the Persian Gulf region as well as maintain a presence in close proximity to Iran.  U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has expressed support for protesters’ calls for human rights and political reform but stopped short of calling for regime change.

Iran

Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossain Mousavi, two opposition leaders in Iran, face renewed calls by some who wish to see them prosecuted for sedition against the Islamic Republic of Iran.  The two men are credited with mobilizing many of the protesters who, since February 14, have been marching in Tehran’s streets and calling for a more secular and democratic system to replace the current regime.  In this first week of protests, some clerics and members of parliament have called for Karroubi and Mousavi to be hanged, declaring them “corrupt on earth,” a finding which carries the death penalty under Iran’s current penal code.  The spokesman for the UN high commissioner on human rights told Reuters in early February that in 2010, Iran executed political dissidents and drug offenders (including minors) at a rate of about 18 to 25 per month and “this year it is triple that rate.”