What on Earth is happening in the Middle East? With protests from Morocco to the West Bank, the status, stability, and safety of the region has gotten more confusing than ever. In an incredibly short period of time (about four months total), we’ve seen two countries overthrow their longstanding dictators, three Gulf States challenged, a nation in the midst of a bloody struggle, and large scale, simmering protests elsewhere in the region. Naturally, there is a lot of misinformation floating about, from Al Qaeda drug lords to U.S. invasions and accusations of civil wars. Most of this is speculation and propaganda dispersed by fledgling dictators or companies with assets in the area. What you need are the facts. For clarity’s sake (and because it’s kind of fun for me) we’re going to use the 5 W’s (and the one H) to get you the basics that you ought to know.
Who: The “who” includes countries from North Africa, the Gulf Region, a bit of the Eastern Mediterranean and Iran. In North Africa, Egyptians, and Tunisians have successfully ousted their longtime dictators with Libya in the midst of a incredible struggle for their rights. In the Gulf, Yemen, Bahrain, and Oman are continuing their protests in the wake of police violence and calling for their leaders to step down. In Iran, demonstrations have been continuing for quite a while with the opposition organizing. Saudi Arabia is primping for its date with pro-democracy protesters by arresting rabble rousing clerics (and by rabble-rousing I really just mean “disagreeing”). And in Syria, Jordan, and the Occupied Territories, a number of protests have been taking place although the majority have been peaceful and less emphatic than what took place in North Africa and the Gulf.
What (in chronological order): So in Tunisia back in December, a man named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in an act of desperation. Rising prices coupled with unemployment and government bureaucracy had pushed him to his limit. This sentiment was then echoed throughout Tunisia, and for a number of weeks protests flared up across the country. When the Army was called in, they refused to forcably subdue their fellow countrymen, and this turned the tide. With the military supporting the protesters, the President of Tunisia jumped in an airplane and flew off into the sunset.
This wave of revolutionary excitement quickly spread to Egypt. Suffering from may of the same issues as Tunisia, they took to the streets and demanded their President, Hosni Mubarak, step down. It took about three weeks of solidarity and incredible bravery, but Mubarak finally left office.
Meanwhile in Yemen, protests have been taking place for over a month. Although occasionally violent, it hasn’t garnered much press and the situation has remained relatively stable. President Saleh, another 30-something year leader, had vowed to protect peaceful protesters who have been upping the ante by camping out and swelling in ranks. Most recently, it seems the police were given orders to shoot into a crowd, killing 3 and injuring over 75. This has only adding fuel to the calls for Saleh to step down.
Then protests in Libya exploded onto the scene. Libya is one of the most oppressive regimes in the entire region and, like Egypt, the citizens knew that once it begun there was no going back. As expected, Gaddafi met the opposition with brutal force. From air strikes to high calibre weapons attacks, the massacre from the government shocked the world and has drawn international condemnation and calls for Gaddafi to step down. Yet, even in the face of such force, the opposition has managed to gain control of Eastern Libya and a number of towns scattered throughout the West. Currently only a handful of Gaddafi strongholds remain. New rumors have the dictator trying to strike bargains with the anti-government movement for a peaceful exit. Although it is too soon to speculate, it doesn’t seem Libyans will be that quick to let him off the hook.
Which brings us to Bahrain. A prosperous and strategic country for the United States (home to one of its military bases) has been wracked by protests for a number of weeks. A Shia majority country with a Sunni leadership, well-publicized videos and reports of violent repression from the king caused international disapproval. Protests are currently still underway outside of the U.S. Embassy, on Pearl Roundabout and at Bahrain Financial Harbor. Citizens are calling on the King to step down as well as the U.S. to stop supporting repressive dictatorships.
In Oman, we’ve been seeing a 10 day peaceful sit-in with little end in sight. Sultan Qaboos has most recently sacked a number of minsters and shuffled his cabinet, but it hasn’t been enough to appease the demonstrators. So far, only one protester has been killed by the police.
Smaller protests have taken place in Iran, Syria, Jordan, and the West Bank with Saudi Arabia next in line for a “Day of Rage.” With a history of incredibly brutal crackdowns, the world awaits the next chapter of this grass-roots movement to challenge dictatorships throughout the region.
Where: This particular region of the world is referred to as the MENA (Middle East & North Africa). Since the MENA is an incredibly varied place ethnically, linguistically, and religiously it would be a mistake to lump it all together as “an Arab thing” (especially considering Iranians are Persian). While there are similarities and longstanding connections throughout the culture of the Middle East that can help shed light or give nuance to a situation, generalizations should be avoided. Similarly, we should not consider it an “Islamic thing.” While there may be small factions of extremist Islam in all of these countries (and every country in the world, really) there has been no indication that they either have power, want power, or would be allowed to snatch it up. Even traditionally conservative politically active groups like the Muslim Brotherhood (which exists in most Middle Eastern countries–not just Egypt) have shown zero interest in imposing religious social laws and regulations.
When: If you can believe it, this has only really been going on since December 17th, 2010. About four months. It was then that Mohamed Bouazizi performed an act of self-immolation and helped spur the current discontent into action. On January 15th the former President of Tunisia fled, on January 25th (only ten days later) huge protests poured onto the streets of Cairo and Alexandria in Egypt. On Febuary 11th, the former President of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, quietly resigned. So this movement is still in its infancy.
Why: The “why” of this is complex as it spans such a large and varied area of the world. However, there are some similarities between all of these cases. For instance, each case lacks any type of representative democracy. Although some of these countries do vote and the leaders use monikers like “President,” the fact is most are serving 25+ year terms and are consistently voted in with 70-95% of the vote. In other words: it’s a dictatorship. In other cases we see kingdoms and sultanates that are having a very hard time justifying their legitimacy during this call for freedom. Add in rising food prices, widespread poverty, and a large population under 30, and it’s created a type of powder keg throughout the MENA.
How: A number of these demonstrations and revolutions would not be possible if it weren’t for the advances of the modern age. Rally dates on Facebook, forums, through texting, and Twitter has made getting the word out easier than ever. Furthermore, streaming media from cellphones and the immediacy of its ability to circulate keeps the outside world intimately involved.
However, it would be an absolute mistake to assume that without such advances these protests would fail. During the height of the Egyptian protests the Internet remained off in the entire country. This action stopped nothing. While broadcasters from Al Jazeera, ABC and CNN were tracked, arrested, and sometimes even beaten by armed guards, the people held their ground and refused to budge.
Libya is another example of a country with very little media access. Rare videos are still snaking their way out of the country, but most of what’s going on remains highly secretive and restricted. Still, this doesn’t seem to have hindered much as anti-government opposition has succeeded in capturing of most of the country. It seems that when modern day convenience fails, resorting to word-of-mouth still works.
The situations in these countries are changing by the hour and even now new stories of police brutality, captured cities, and planned protests are emerging. Some governments are offering conciliatory measures to try to rebuff any violent revolt. In Jordan, the king has worked to reshuffle and change the government. Some of the richer countries in the Gulf are offering better tax breaks and incentive checks to keep their citizens happy and in their homes. If this works out in the long haul or not, we will know soon enough. But it stands to reason that the Middle East we’ve known for the past 20-30 years has been replaced. The people’s will has emerged and they are no longer satisfied to sacrifice freedom for stability. As they demand representation, leaders around the world are still adjusting. However, if this change keeps going at its current rate, these leaders had better get used to it quickly. From the looks on the faces of protesters from Tunis, Benghazi, Sana’a, and Cairo, the people are done waiting around. The future is in their hands now, and there is no going back.