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17 Feb, 2011 07:04

Unrest sweeps across Arab world

Unrest sweeps across Arab world

The governments of the Middle East and North African countries being engulfed by a wave of protests are resorting to force.

Clashes continue across Yemen in what is now the eighth day of protests. Demonstrators have been using social networking websites to call for as many people as possible to hit the streets on what has been dubbed "Friday of Rage".In Libya, at least 24 people have been killed, as police are reported to have used firearms in various cities.In Bahrain, mourners chanted anti-government slogans after security forces dispersed thousands of rioters in the center of the capital, Manama. At least five were killed and about 230 injured in clashes, the Associated Press reports. Clashes also erupted in the Jordanian capital of Amman, where anti-government demonstrators called for reforms and the abrogation of the peace treaty with Israel.Sabah al-Mukhtar, the president of the Arab Lawyers Association in the UK, explains that all these protests throughout the region do not have to have a common coordination center because people of the region have a uniting factor that sent them to the streets:“The unifying factor is that all of them have had enough of tyranny, enough of dictatorship, enough of subservience to the West.“The governments there have all been so subservient to the West that this goes against the will of the people of that region, not because there is any particular alienation, except that, generally speaking, the national interests of the West are contradictory to the national interests of the peoples of the region,” Sabah al-Mukhtar continued.“The Arabs have a problem with Israel, they have a problem with the Americans, they have a problem with capitalism. And this is a unifying factor,”he concluded.

Mubarak’s out. The army’s in. Who’s next?

On Friday, Tahrir Square in Cairo has once again filled with people. Tens of thousands are celebrating a week since Hosni Mubarak bowed to the huge pressure to step down as president.In Egypt, where the military has temporarily replaced the government, strikes are gaining force.“It’s going to be the army that decides which way the country goes. It was the same with Sadat, same with Mubarak,”says Middle East analyst Neil Lazarus.It is nearly a week since Egyptian generals promised to lift a 30-year state of emergency. But there is still no sign of when that will be.“The army knows its limitation. When the decision was taken not to open fire, not to do any slaughter within their own people, they lost the ability to be the next controllers of Egypt,” believes Major General Yaakov Amidror from the Israel Defense Forces. But they do want to be the controllers of the peace. And therefore the army, if it wants, can keep the state of emergency in place for as long as it says it is necessary. But not everyone thinks the army’s intentions are noble. Finian Cunningham is a Middle East analyst in Bahrain where the internet and other visual communications have been cut by the authorities. “The Egyptian military is trying to placate protesters with their plans to supposedly, eventually, lift the state of emergency that has prevailed in the country for nearly 30 years. But the mass of people don't seem to be buying those so-called assurances,” he says. “And the people are quite right to be deeply skeptical of such intentions by the military.”Mamoun Siam is a photographer who could not wait to capture Egypt’s revolution on film. But he was stopped at the border by Egyptian soldiers.So just how different is Egypt today under the generals, from the Egypt of yesterday under Mubarak?“The state of emergency was and is a central component of the governing apparatus, whether that apparatus is headed by a figure like former president Hosni Mubarak, his successor Omar Suleiman or a clique of generals,” Finian Cunningham says.And for as long as a state of emergency remains in place, the hopes that brought millions of Egyptians to the streets remain up in the air.But Egypt is not the only country in the Middle East that lives in a state of emergency.Across its border, in Israel, depending on who you talk to, there are also emergency laws.“Israel is another state in the region with emergency powers. Such powers, in my view, indicate the undemocratic and anti-democratic nature of that state,” Finian Cunningham says. “Israel routinely wages wars of aggression against neighbors. It is occupying territories and terrorizing people in those territories.”Middle East analyst Neil Lazarus says it is because of bad neighbors.“It is because we live in a bad neighborhood. They have the army in control, and in Israel we are a democracy, our elected politicians are in control,” he says.And Major General Yaakov Amidror says there is no state of emergency in Israel.“Israel is not in a state of emergency. Israel is living its usual life, no one moved from the center to the south or from the north to the center,” he says.But wherever it is, there is no denying that a country in a state of emergency is a country where democracy is ignored. And if in Egypt, the generals do not make clear signs to move toward democracy soon, many protestors might be wondering what exactly they were out on the streets for.

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No rest for the unrest

Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya from the Center for Research on Globalization says that real change in the region will come only when constitutions are altered and elections take place.“These are revolts, these are not revolutions yet,” he said. “People want change, they are fed up. But these are only revolts until the structures in place are changed, and only then can they be considered revolutions. The people want democratization, but is it happening? That’s the question. In order for democratization to occur, in order to have a democratic state, the people need to elect their officials. Right now we are not seeing that.”“In Egypt the military has taken over,” Nazemroaya continued. “Nothing has changed. It is a formal change. Hosni Mubarak was a part of the military. Hosni Muburak was a military commander, and General Suleiman was a military commander. These are the same people, in fact. So nothing has changed yet.”

The most critical factor in the current political crises in the region has not yet come into play, says British author and journalist Anatol Lieven.“All these revolutions have been urban revolutions by people in the capital cities,” said Lieven. “We do not know yet what the attitudes of the populations are in the countryside and small towns. That’s why the future of Egypt is so much up in the air. We don’t know how these people will behave, how they will vote when there are elections, or when they start to mobilize after what has happened.”Lieven does not regard Iran as the next target of anti-government uprising. The Iranian regime cannot be compared to Mubarak’s open autocracy, he argues, as it is much more closed. On the other hand, the people’s representation in the current Iranian protests also remains unclear. “There are widespread suspicions that the [Iranian latest presidential] election was rigged, but a possibility remains that a majority actually voted for Ahmadinejad,” said Lieven. Whatever happens in Iran, it is not going to follow the pattern elsewhere in the Gulf region, he concluded.

Middle East specialist James Denselow from King's College in London believes that it is a combination of factors common to all countries involved that ignited the protests in the region. “There are certain structural problems facing all those states – whether you talk about the state of their economy, the high rate of youth unemployment (24% across the region), the fact that the leaderships gave very little freedom and democratic choices to their people, the fact that the leaders had been in power for often decades,” he said.It all started with a young man who burned himself in protest against his government, “and the reverberations from what happened in Tunisia are now being felt in every single state,” Denselow said.