By Tamara Wing
“2011 will be a year for change.” These were the words of Algerian human rights activist, Mustapha Bouchachi, following the fall of Egypt’s president, and the sentiment is taking hold in countries across the arab world. In January, Tunisia’s president fled to Saudi Arabia in disgrace after four weeks of street protests and workers’ strikes. In February, Egypt’s president turned power over to the Supreme Council of the armed forces after 18 days of protests by Egyptians of all ages, religions, and professions.
The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia have inspired others to believe that change brought about by peaceful protests is possible in their own countries. As people in neighboring arab countries are now mobilizing to call for resignations within their own governments, their leaders at last seem more willing to hear the demands of the people.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made public statements expressing support for the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, yet he referred to them as “Islamist” revolutions (a claim to which many of Egypt’s diverse, pro-democracy protesters took offense). In the first days of the Egyptian revolution, Iranians were allowed and encouraged to hold rallies as a show of solidarity with the Egyptian protesters. This attitude changed as the toppling of Egypt’s regime became inevitable; Iranian activists began to organize protests against their own regime, and the government went back to its policy of denying permits for nearly all political rallies.
Political organizer (and opposition leader) Mehdi Karroubi pointed out the hypocrisy of his government’s leaders, saying, “If they are not going to allow their own people to protest, it goes against everything they are saying, and all they are doing to welcome the protests in Egypt is fake.” The day after Egypt’s president resigned from power, Iranian officials ordered Karroubi to be placed under house arrest; his mobile phone account was also suspended. In spite of the crack-down, Karroubi and other local activists have launched nationwide demonstrations to be held on February 14. They are calling for an end of the ayatollahs’ Islamic Republic rule in favor of a secular government.
Algeria, like Tunisia and Egypt, reflects high rates of poverty, unemployment, and inflation. It too is ruled by authoritarian means under a long-standing State of Emergency which allows broad, often abusive tactics by police. On Saturday, February 13, a day after Egypt’s president resigned, thousands of Algerians marched in the streets of Algiers despite a 10-year ban against public protests. The protesters were met by riot police who outnumbered them three-to-one, chanting “No to the police state!” and “Bouteflika out!” – a reference to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. By the end of the day, four hundred people had been arrested and the president had ordered a block on Facebook access. Algerian officials later announced that the country’s emergency laws will be lifted “in the very near future” but opposition leaders have announced that protests will be held every Saturday “until the regime steps down.”
Bahrain is an oil-rich island country in the Persian Gulf which has, in the past ten years, made modest efforts to modernize in the areas of education and women’s rights but has done little to assist its poorest residents who are suffering from the steadily rising cost of food. Pro-democracy activists announced that protests are being organized for Monday, February 14 to demand real reforms in the country. At the same time, the king promised to give $2500 – $3000 to each Bahraini family and to increase food subsidies for lower income families in an apparent attempt to appease those who intend to publicly oppose his rule.
“Yesterday Tunisia; today Egypt; tomorrow Yemen will open the prison.” This was a chant heard over the weekend in Yemen where anti-government demonstrators have, for weeks, been calling for the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. On Sunday, police beat protesters back with batons to prevent them from advancing toward the presidential palace.
Yemen, one of the poorest and more tribally-split arab countries, relies on its dwindling oil reserves to bring revenue to the state. Yemen’s education and healthcare systems are appalling, and violations of civil liberties and human rights are widespread.
In the days following the resignation of Egypt’s president, President Saleh proposed to meet with opposition leaders about building a more representative coalition.
Demanding a solution to the rising costs of food and fuel in the country, thousands of laborers, socialists, and members of the Muslim Brotherhood have protested outside of Prime Minister Samir Rafai’s office over the past few weeks. They also called for dissolution of Jordan’s Parliament and better representation by their own groups. In response to the protests, King Abdullah sacked his government and called on a former army general to appoint a new cabinet to serve in the interim leading up to democratic elections.
There has been increasing unrest in Pakistan in recent days over internal matters. Hundreds of Pakistanis marched outside the U.S. embassy in Karachi calling for the lynching of a U.S. Consulate worker, Raymond Davis, 36, accused of murdering two Pakistanis in the streets of Lahore last month. Davis has been held in Pakistani state custody throughout the investigation which has revealed that one of the two men was shot in the back, contradicting Davis’s claim of self-defense in an attempted robbery. President Obama is reportedly furious that Pakistan has not recognized Davis as having diplomatic immunity; Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari is said to have serious concern about retaliation by his own citizens in the event that Davis is released.
On Saturday, a Pakistani court issued an arrest warrant for President Bush’s close ally, former president Pervez Musharraf, for his connection to the 2007 murder of his rival, popular former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Bhutto was killed in an open car after making numerous statements to national and foreign media claiming that Osama Bin Laden had been dead since 2002. The court did not release details of the findings which led to their decision.
Palestinians across the border from Egypt held solidarity demonstrations as Egyptians sought their president’s resignation. In Gaza, Hamas allowed such displays while in the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority (PA) used its police to disperse the demonstrators. Pro-Mubarak demonstrations in the West Bank, however, were allowed to continue. PA officials have experienced a serious falling-out with their people in recent weeks with the revelations that their leaders had been in secret negotiations with Israel. The 1,684 files known as the “Palestine Papers” revealed that the PA leadership had agreed to concede nearly all of the Palestinian territory in Jerusalem/al Quds with no right of return for the resulting Palestinian refugees. There have since been numerous resignations from PA members, including that of chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, with more cabinet members expected to resign on Monday, February 14. The PA has called for emergency elections by September to replace their ranks but Hamas is vowing to boycott the elections and says it will not recognize the results.