Almost every single government in the Middle East is on the edge or is in danger of severe destabilization. Protests continue to spread throughout the region and beyond in a domino effect that may be on the scale of the collapse of the communist East Bloc. However, the outcome may not be as positive as it is still very uncertain who will fill the power vacuum.
The revolution in Libya continues despite the horrific violence used by Qaddafi’s forces. Local police and military personnel continue to defect as the opposition advances towards Tripoli. There are frequent unconfirmed reports that the defected personnel and armed demonstrators are planning to travel to Tripoli to intervene. Qaddafi has offered no concessions except for a payment of $450 for every family. Europe is taking the lead in helping the Libyan opposition with France and the U.K. endorsing a no-fly zone over the country and Secretary of State Clinton says the U.S. is reaching out to the opposition. There were protests in Tripoli following Friday prayers last week and it should be expected again this week.
Opposition groups have publicized several dates for rallies in the region. On March 1, the Iranian opposition plans major protests after the arrests of the two top opposition leaders, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. The regime was too afraid of a backlash to make this move until now, with the top prosecutor saying they would be put on trial “once public opinion is ready.” The regime may very well have over-played its hand this time, as a letter allegedly written by senior Revolutionary Guards officers in early February has surfaced where they said they would not open fire on protesters and demanded that the regime change its behavior.
On March 8, protests are going to be held in Kuwait by the Popular Action Bloc and Kuwaiti Progressive Group to try to force the resignation of the Prime Minister. A Facebook group is calling for protests throughout Syria on March 11, though there will likely be protests in front of the Libyan embassy before then. The Syrian security forces arrested 14 people and dispersed a gathering of about 200 people at the embassy recently. The regime is also preparing another aid package to appease the population. Anti-Assad graffiti is now appearing in Damascus and the regime is saying that the holiday of Nowruz on March 21 will not be celebrated, something the Kurds are not going to take lightly.
March 11 is also the day that Saudi activists are planning a protest in the Kingdom in favor of free elections, particularly for the Shura Council, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the release of political prisoners, an independent judiciary and significantly, changes to the religious order. Protests are also being planned for March 20 in Saudi Arabia. A letter has been signed by 100 businessmen, activists and academics calling for the creation of a constitutional monarchy and the reformists received clerical support from Sheikh Salman al-Ouda. King Abdullah has reacted to the pressure by announcing a massive $36 billion aid package and promising to spend $400 billion by 2014 on education, health care and infrastructure.
Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his supporters are holding protests against Hezbollah on March 14. There were protests over the weekend already in Beirut where at least 500 gathered against the sectarianism of the government. One report said as many as 4,000 assembled and also demanded secular rule. Protests will be held the next day in the Palestinian territories to demand unity between Fatah and Hamas. In Gaza, Hamas just stamped out a demonstration of dozens of Palestinians for the release of political prisoners and freedoms. A Facebook group has been created to organize a protest in Qatar on March 16 to demand the resignation of the Emir, the cutting of ties to Israel and Iran and the dismantling of a major U.S. base there.
The unrest dramatically spread to Oman over the weekend when 2,000 protesters assembled in Sohar. They rioted, setting fire to a police station and supermarket. About 500 of them blocked truck deliveries to the port and the security forces intervened, killing between two and six people. Sultan Qaboos bin Said responded by announcing that $390 would be given to the unemployed every month and 50,000 government jobs would be created. A government delegation is being sent to negotiate with the protesters.
The protests in Bahrain continue to escalate with the largest one yet being held last week with over 100,000 participants. The government has released 308 political prisoners, shook up the government and allowed Shiite opposition leaders to return to the country. This has not stymied the protesters, who have now blockaded parliament.
The story is similar in Yemen. On February 25, over 100,000 protested across the country, including 30,000 in Sanaa. The opposition says it will not relent in its demand for the resignation of President Saleh and will not accept a unity government with his party. Eight members of parliament have quit his party and 59 are said to soon follow. A very powerful tribal chief, Hussein al-Ahmar, has joined the opposition and is calling on Saleh to step down. The President still has significant tribal support, though, as the northern tribes have confirmed their support for him and 11 tribal chiefs declared their endorsement for him on Sunday.
Protests of a much smaller size continue in Jordan. On February 25, protests were held in Amman. The government said there were 6,000 but the opposition said it was over 10,000.The Muslim Brotherhood played a major role but the rally was supported by 19 other parties and organizations. King Abdullah is slowly losing the support of tribes, with one staging a small protest and 36 tribal officials signing a letter calling for limits on his power.
Iraq saw nationwide protests on February 25 despite Prime Minister al-Maliki’s pleas not to join them, claiming they had been organized by Al-Qaeda and Baathists without giving any evidence. Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani and Iranian ally Moqtada al-Sadr also said Iraqis shouldn’t take part, but they did anyway. Al-Maliki gave another concession and gave a 100-day deadline to all of his ministers to clear out corruption and carry out reforms or be dismissed.
The revolution in Libya seemed to provoke some protests in the Arab countries of Africa. Algeria had its first protest since the state of emergency ended. The Algerian press said about 500 turned out in Algiers but the opposition says it was above 5,000. Whatever the true number was, the protests have still declined from what they once were. Tens of thousands protested throughout Morocco as well in favor of limiting the power of King Mohammed VI even though the main Islamist organization was not involved. A protest against voter fraud was prevented in Sudan when over 100 security personnel surrounded the headquarters of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement.
The Middle Eastern uprisings have spread well beyond the region, as reported here last week. Protests were again attempted in China over the weekend and the Cuban government is putting greater pressure on a group of mothers of political prisoners. A group of over 80 students ended their hunger strike in Venezuela after the government agreed to release seven political prisoners and negotiate further with them. There have been brief clashes in North Korea and South Korea is trying to spread the word to Kim Jong-Il’s population about the revolutions in the Middle East. In Vietnam, a democratic opposition leader was just arrested after calling for an uprising to overthrow the communist government.
A decisive point in history may be unfolding at this moment. As these governments teeter, forces for genuine democracy will battle the Islamists to write the next chapter. A new Middle East is being created but no one knows yet what it will look like or what it will mean for the West.