Wave of Protests Continues Across North Africa and the Middle East

Morgan Lorraine Roach /

In January, Heritage Senior Research Fellow Jim Phillips predicted that Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution would spark uprisings throughout the Arab world. Four months later, North Africa and the Middle East are experiencing substantial governmental transformations, and there is no end in sight.

Tunisia

As the first leadership casualty of the “Arab Spring,” Tunisia’s former president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, is now wanted by Tunisian authorities on 18 counts of criminal activity. Interpol has also issued an arrest warrant for the former president now seeking refuge in Saudi Arabia.

Despite setting elections for the constituent assembly on July 24, the interim government is now backtracking. Yesterday, Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi warned that “logistical hitches” could prevent the elections from taking place. Many also fear the return of the former regime, as former interior minister Farhat Rajhi claimed that Ben Ali loyalists were planning a coup in the wake of upcoming elections. Renewed protests have taken place, prompting Tunisian authorities to institute a curfew to stem violence.

Egypt

Since former President Hosni Mubarak fled to Sharm el-Sheikh in February, the military has assumed power until elections next fall. While the Muslim Brotherhood, as the largest and most well-organized political force, is expected to make considerable gains in the parliamentary elections in September, it claims that it will not run a presidential candidate in elections later this year.

So far, the toppling of the Mubarak regime has not resulted in peace and democracy. The military is still in firm control and promises to rule by an “iron fist” after a recent outbreak of violence between Coptic Christians and Islamist extremists who seek to mobilize Egypt’s Muslim majority by fomenting hatred against Christians. As Egypt attempts to transform its government into a democracy, the acceptance of religious minorities still has a long way to go.

Yemen

President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s political power is hanging by a thread. In an initial attempt to quell public opposition, Saleh announced that he would not run in the 2013 presidential election and then offered to relinquish power within 30 days in return for immunity. This deal quickly fell apart after he refused to sign it. After being abandoned by many members of his own government and tribe, Yemen’s failing president continues to violently crack down on protestors.

The United States and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have called for Saleh to step down. At yesterday’s meeting in Riyadh, GCC members proposed a plan for Saleh to step down within 30 days, transfer power to a deputy, and establish a government that includes the opposition. In exchange, Saleh would be granted immunity. Saleh continues to balk at stepping down while Yemen slides toward greater instability.

Bahrain

In March, Bahrain imposed a state of emergency and, with assistance from its allies in the GCC, staged a vigorous crackdown on anti-government protestors. Bahrain’s government claims that Iran and Hezbollah continue to assist protestors in their attempts to topple the government. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has confirmed Iranian meddling, and U.S. intelligence officials have acknowledged tracking communications among Shia opposition groups, Iran, and Hezbollah.

While Bahrain’s government is divided between those who are willing to compromise with the opposition and hard-liners bent on suppressing reform, the latter have wielded more influence. So far, over 800 people have been arrested in connection with anti-government protests, and last weekend trials began for 21 anti-government activists charged with attempting to overthrow the government.

Iran

The protests from the stolen June 2009 elections still echo across Iran. While the regime has welcomed revolutions across the Middle East, it violently suppresses the one at home. Iran’s young and growing population, its high unemployment, and its poor economic outlook are a dangerous combination and spell the way for continued unrest. While political opposition leaders have been arrested and forced into hiding, Iran’s Green Movement continues to demand democratic change.

Libya

With the help from NATO air strikes, Libya’s Free Libya Forces have made painfully slow progress against Colonel Muammar Qadhafi’s loyalists. In the western city of Misrata, opposition forces advanced on government forces, forcing them out. Despite this recent stroke of good fortune, the opposition movement is in disarray. The United Kingdom, France, and Italy have sent military advisors, and Saudi Arabia and Qatar have provided weapons. The United States has provided $25 million in non-lethal assistance and is currently assessing the prospect of disbursing the Qadhafi assets (which were frozen by the U.S. Treasury) to the opposition movement’s Transitional National Council.

Jordan

Since last December, Jordan has experienced the rise of two different anti-government movements: a pro-democracy movement inspired by those in Tunisia and Egypt and a militant Salafist movement. After acquiescing to pro-democracy activists, King Abdullah II replaced Prime Minister Samir Rifai with former military general Marouf al-Bakhit. Opposition groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood have called this change “cosmetic” and are now calling for al-Bakhit’s resignation.

At the same time, the Jordanian government is also being challenged by the rise of the Salafist Jihadist movement, which is bent on transforming Jordan into an Islamic state run according to Sharia law. Jordanian authorities have attempted to crack down on the demonstrations but have been met with violence, leading to over a hundred arrests last week.

Syria

President Bashar al-Assad’s regime staged a brutal crackdown on peaceful demonstrators that has claimed more lives than any other country affected by the “Arab Spring,” with the exception of Libya. After initially promising reforms, Assad deployed tanks, snipers on rooftops, and tens of thousands of heavily armed troops to crush what he called an “armed uprising.” Although the Alawite-dominated regime’s narrow base of support has eroded dangerously, it continues to receive active support from Iran.

The Baathist regime has characterized the opposition movement “of fundamentalists, extremists, smugglers and people who are ex-convicts.” Over the past few days, the regime has become even more aggressive, arresting hundreds of anti-government activists and claiming victory, despite the growing alienation of Syria’s long-suffering people.