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North Africa & Middle East: Region in upheaval

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North Africa & Middle East: Region in upheaval

Confused about all the protests? Here is everything you need to know

First it was Tunisia. Then it was Libya, Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, Albania, Lebanon and Egypt. Suddenly, civil unrest has erupted in countries, some of which have been under authoritarian rule for decades, all over the Middle East and North Africa.

What happened? And what does the future hold for this volatile region of the world? Here's everything you need to know about the leaders, the protesters and the problems in each of the nations that have been gripped by protests over these last few weeks.


The leader

In 1987, President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali seized power from Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia's only other president since the country's independence from France, in a bloodless coup d'etat. A former minister of interior, Ben Ali and his secular Constitutional Democratic Rally party, or RCD, faced scant opposition in the few elections held during his 23 years in power.

Ben Ali led Tunisia during a time of stability, but critics argue that much of it came at the cost of his citizens' freedoms. Ben Ali's secular government crushed Tunisia's Islamist movement through widespread crackdowns, arrests and torture.

The gripe

Tunisia's seemingly stable economy, with a sizeable middle class, belied the fact that many young people in the country could not find work. Rampant poverty outside of Tunis, combined with rising prices, was a major factor in the Tunisian uprising.

But the revolution, as many in Tunisia call it, had deeper roots. For years, Tunisians lived in fear of Ben Ali's vast security services — where political prisoners often faced years of torture and isolation. Freedom of the press in Tunisia was virtually non-existent during Ben Ali's reign.

Tunisians were especially enraged by the fact that Ben Ali's kleptocratic family, especially the members related to his wife, Leila, amassed millions of dollars through corruption and the granting of political favors in the country's economy.

The timing

On Dec. 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire in the small agricultural town of Sidi Bouzid. The 26-year-old fruit vendor was reportedly frustrated after local police seized his wooden cart for not having official permits.

In early January, Bouazizi died from the wounds he suffered. But his death sparked weeks of protests, which then grew into one of the largest anti-government uprisings against an authoritarian regime in the recent history of the Arab world.

The protests

The wave of unrest that swept over Tunisia began as small, localized protests. Police forces, acting with almost complete impunity, responded with heavy-handed tactics including beatings and arrests. Over the weeks, unrest gained traction around the country, aided by unrestricted social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter, which broadcasted daily images and video of violent clashes between protesters and police forces.

Protesters eventually began challenging the oppression of Ben Ali's regime itself. By Jan. 14, with thousands of angry Tunisians on the streets of the capital demanding the ouster of their leader, Ben Ali and several members of his family fled the country.

In the weeks of violence, the United Nations reported that police had killed more than 100 protesters, many with live ammunition.

The stakes

Tunisia is now a nation reveling in newfound freedoms. But since Ben Ali's departure, daily protests have continued to rock Tunisia's capital. Police have fired tear gas during clashes with anti-government demonstrators several times this week alone. The army still maintains control of Tunisia's streets, with tanks on the ground and helicopters patrolling the skies. A nightly curfew is still in effect.

Many questions still linger [2] for this nation in transition. Will remnants of Ben Ali's now defunct party continue to dominate in any new government? What place will al-Nahda, the once banned Islamic movement, be granted in the political sphere? And what role will the army accept in the future of Tunisia?

— Jon Jensen


The leader

Egypt President Hosni Mubarak took office in 1981, the same year Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency in the United States. Mubarak served first as an Air Force pilot and later as vice president under Anwar Sadat. His rise to power, however, was somewhat unexpected — Mubarak assumed the post when Islamic fundamentalists assassinated Sadat.

In his three decades of rule, Mubarak is credited for leading Egypt through a period of relative peace and stability following four wars with Israel. Mubarak's police forces crushed an Islamic insurgency in the 1990s, ending most threats to the country's vital tourism sector. He also honored his predecessor's 1979 peace treaty with Israel, earning the favor of successive American administrations, and the billions of dollars in U.S. economic and military aid that comes with it.

The gripe

In Cairo, the super wealthy live side-by-side with the desperately poor. Imported European sports cars vie for space alongside 40-year-old taxis and donkey carts. Critics argue that Mubarak's reforms have served the rich well, while Egypt's poor get even poorer. About 20 percent of Egypt's population still lives close to the poverty line, on $2 per day.

And for the opposition, change doesn't come easy. Political competition in Egypt is virtually non-existent. Mubarak's National Democratic Party has won landslide victories in every election since their inception in 1976, often amid allegations of vote-rigging and official intimidation by riot police and plainclothes security forces.

The timing

To say that Egyptians have been inspired by recent events in Tunisia would be an understatement. Many activists in Egypt are hoping to duplicate the Tunisia scenario that saw President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali flee his 23-year-old seat of power after weeks of popular anger and protests.

The first round of protests in Egypt were planned to coincide with Police Day, a national holiday celebrating the country's security forces. It's somewhat of an ironic tradition, critics say, for a country rife with human rights abuses directed at minorities, refugees and political opposition.

Also, a focal point of the Jan. 25 protests was Khaled Said, a young man allegedly tortured and killed last year by police in Alexandria, Egypt's second largest city. A group on the social networking site Facebook titled "We are all Khaled Said" has attracted hundreds of thousands of followers — and more than 90,000 indicated that they were planning to attend protests in Egypt on Jan. 25.

The unrest was followed by massive demonstrations on Jan. 28 that have so far been larger than the country has seen in recent memory. Tens of thousands overwhelmed Egypt's police and military forces [3] and defied a government curfew as they descended on the capital's Tahrir, or "Liberation," Square.

The protests

Protests in Egypt are nothing new. But security forces typically arrive on the scenes hours early in numbers three to four times that of protesters. Cordons are set around the dozens of regular activists, and protests usually fizzle from exhaustion and impatience on both sides.

But on Jan. 25, tens of thousands of Egyptians poured into the streets. Police appeared completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who dared to challenge them. Initially, at least, police forces allowed protesters to vent. But by nightfall, the police responded with beatings, tear gas, water cannons and rubber-coated bullets, finally dispersing crowds by the next morning. At least four people — including one police officer — were reportedly killed, and dozens were injured.

The stakes

The president is now 82 years old and his health rumored to be in decline. Having never named a vice president, speculation over the future of the nation's leadership has become the parlor game of choice in Egypt. Many believe Mubarak's son Gamal is being groomed for the job.

An election for Egypt's presidency is scheduled for September. Mubarak has not announced whether he will run or not, though in the past Mubarak has said he would serve "until his last breath."

Whoever leads Egypt next will inherit the region's most important diplomatic power, both geographically and historically. They will have to appease 80 million in Egypt — the largest population in the Middle East. And they will also control the Suez Canal — the gateway to international commercial shipping and naval power in the Mediterranean and beyond.

— Jon Jensen


The leader

After months of political maneuvering, Lebanon's Parliament Tuesday nominated Najib Mikati, who is backed by Hezbollah, as the country's new prime minister. As a result, protests broke out across the country. But Mikati was not the real source of discontent. Demonstrators said they would not accept any government handpicked, or led, by Hezbollah.

Hezbollah, or the "Party of God," is a Shiite movement that boasts the country's most powerful military. Backed by Iran and Syria, Hezbollah has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States. The group was originally formed in the 1980s to fight the Israeli occupation.

In 2008, Hezbollah's militia took over much of Beirut in a matter of days in a demonstration of its military power. Now it appears to have also proven its power politically.

The gripe

Demonstrators accuse Hezbollah of staging a political coup by forcing the collapse of the unity government in mid-January and then pressuring lawmakers to support their candidate for prime minister. Had the vote swung the other way, Lebanese analysts predicted there would have been another military takeover by Hezbollah.

Under a Hezbollah-led government, protesters say they fear the return of Syrian rule in Lebanon, and that Beirut will become a puppet of the Iranian government. As a "rogue state," Lebanon could lose Western economic aid and become isolated from former allies in the Arab world. Demonstrators fear the new leadership will thrust Lebanon into an era of dictatorial rule, economic chaos and sectarian strife.

The timing

An international court set up to investigate the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is widely expected to issue indictments against Hezbollah for the attack. In mid-January, in protest of Lebanon's support for the investigation, 11 ministers aligned with Hezbollah quit the government, forcing its collapse and ending the rule of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the son of the slain premier.

Talks among lawmakers over what a new government might look like proceeded until parliament voted Tuesday to nominate the candidate supported by Hezbollah, triggering the countrywide protests.

The protests

Demonstrations erupted almost immediately after it became clear that Hezbollah's candidate would win Monday night. On the streets of Tripoli the next morning, thousands gathered in what appeared to be more like a party than a protest. Demonstrators said the fight was not over, and they fully expected Saad Hairi, whose face was brandished on massive posters in every corner of the square, to retake the premiership.

But within two hours, the protest turned violent when soldiers prevented a crowd of angry men from storming a Hezbollah-allied political office. Demonstrators seized an Al Jazeera news truck and ripped it apart before setting it on fire. Extended gunfire was heard, but it remains unclear who was shooting.

The stakes

To the Lebanese, the stakes in this battle are massive. It reflects the sectarian battle that fueled the country's 15-year bloody civil war, threatening to spark another round of fighting, and political fights that have stagnated the government for months, at the expense of the Lebanese people.

Both sides say the other threatens their existence, and the future is unknown. Analysts are repeating an oft-heard phrase here: If you guess five possible outcomes of a Lebanese political crisis, the sixth will happen.

— Heather Murdock


The leader

Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has been in power for 32 years, initially as leader of the northern Yemen Arab Republic and then as president of the Republic of Yemen, following unification with the south in 1990. In the Arab region, Saleh comes in second for longest-serving ruler after Muammar Gaddafi, the leader of Libya, who has been in power for more than 40 years.

The gripe

Yemen's 23 million citizens, among the poorest in the Arab world, have many grievances. The government is widely seen as corrupt and is abhorred for its association with the United States in the fight against Al Qaeda, which has established a strong presence in the country in part because of weak governance outside of the capital. There are very few political freedoms, the press is tightly controlled and the country is rapidly running out of water and oil reserves.

The timing

Inspired by the Tunisian revolt, thousands joined noisy protests in Sanaa last week in the biggest showing of public opposition in years. Yemeni authorities responded by arresting Tawakul Karman, a well-known female activist and a key orchestrator of the protests. Karman was seized by plain-clothed police officers in the early hours of the morning on charges of organizing unlicensed demonstrations. Her arrest caused a public outrage and sparked further demonstrations. Thousands gathered outside the chief prosecutor's office until she was eventually released.

The protests

The protests here in Sanaa, Yemen's capital, have largely been confined to the country's small middle class, but have been bigger and more violent than previous demonstrations. On Jan. 22, riot police used batons, shields and tear gas to disperse a crowd of 2,500 students and opposition activists at Sanaa University calling for the president to step down.

A cameraman working for the satellite station al-Arabiya had his camera confiscated and was briefly detained for filming the skirmishes. Another cameraman, working for Al Jazeera, was beaten by police, the Qatar-based station reported.

The protests have been more violent in Aden, a southern port city, where separatists are calling for southern Yemen to revert to being its own country. Last week clashes and gun battles between the army and protesters left seven people wounded, three of them soldiers.

The stakes

This influx of civil disobedience comes at a time of political deadlock and heightened tension between Yemen's ruling party and the opposition, making the Tunisian uprising resonate particularly with those opposed to Saleh's 32-year reign.

Earlier this month Yemen's parliament gave preliminary approval to a constitutional amendment eliminating presidential term limits, a measure that would allow the president to rule for a lifetime. In an apparent effort to defuse calls for his ouster, Saleh assured opponents he would not install his son as his successor and raised the salaries for the army.

While analysts are doubtful that protesters can harness that discontent into a Tunisian-style overthrow, some think that further protests could embolden the opposition and force Saleh to give up on his plans of ruling beyond 2013.

— Tom Finn


The leader

Jordan is a constitutional monarchy, headed by King Abdullah II, who appointed Samir Rifai as prime minister in 2009. Although Jordan is primarily ruled by its monarchy, the lower house of Parliament is elected.

Some protesters directed their anger at Rifai and the Cabinet, while others vented their frustration at members of the newly-elected Parliament, which gave the government an overwhelming vote of confidence last month. Parliamentary elections were held in November after the King dissolved the body in 2009 after allegations of corruption and misconduct among several lawmakers and for being perceived as largely ineffectual. The main opposition party in the country, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), boycotted the 2010 elections because of its objection to the one-person, one-vote provision in the temporary Elections Law.

The gripe

Many Jordanians focused their anger on the country's worsening economic climate. Jordan, unlike its neighbors, is not an oil rich country and government officials say it is feeling the impact of the global economic crisis and a high degree of inflation. Citizens are suffering the effects of the increases in the prices of food and fuel, while salaries remain low. There's also growing concern about unemployment in the rural districts and among the country's young people.

Although the government has taken measures in recent weeks to address the rising prices and low salaries, protesters said the moves didn't go far enough.

The IAF, which is the political arm of Jordan's branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, has called on the King to sack the cabinet, dissolve Parliament, change the elections law and allow for an "elected" government. A former member of parliament participating in the protests said he wanted a new unity government that could institute real political reform, including government transparency and a crackdown on corruption.

The timing

The largest protests in Jordan happened to come a day after the government introduced additional measures, including raising the wages of civil servants and servicemen to try to ease economic hardships . This followed a package of measures announced the week before that many felt were insufficient.

The uprising in Tunisia and elsewhere around the region appeared to have emboldened but not sparked the protests in Jordan. At one of the demonstrations someone in the crowd led a chant, "A salute from Amman to proud Tunis."

The protests

Thousands of Jordanians took to the streets on Jan. 21 to protest economic hardships and demand political reform, many calling on the prime minister to leave office.

Demonstrators in downtown Amman, the capital, included members of the Islamic movement, leftists, and members of trade unions. The Public Security Directorate placed crowd estimates at about 1,000 protestors and 2,500 onlookers. In stark contrast to elsewhere in the region, however, the noisy protest ended peacefully and police handed out bottles of water to demonstrators. There was a similar protest in Zarqa and smaller protests in other cities.

Islamic groups, in an attempt to keep pressure on the government, said they were planning another demonstration on Jan. 28.

The stakes

While it is not unusual to see protests in Jordan, it is unusual for them to be so well-organized and to see such consistent demands for reform, Randa Habib, the bureau chief for Agence France Presse, said. But Habib, who has covered the region for 24 years, noted that some groups are taking advantage of the economic situation and the situation in Tunis for their own ends.

"What started as a spontaneous movement by common people who were concerned about rising food prices has been highjacked by the Islamists and the unions, transforming itself from a social movement into a political movement," she said.

Habib said the protests have already caused changes in the country, noting the steps the government has taken in recent weeks to try to appease the population, including the recently announced raise in salaries for civil servants and servicemen.

Habib also said Parliament is discussing the electoral law and that she has "no doubt" it will be amended. She said Tunis' impact on the region is that it "it forced the leadership to listen."

— Amy Hybels


The leader

Sali Berisha, leader of Albania's ruling Democratic Party and prime minister since 2005, has been active in politics since the late 1960s, when he was a high-ranking member of the Communist Party. After the fall of Communism, he repositioned himself as leader of the country's reform movement. From 1992 to 1997 he was president of Albania, until his government fell amid the chaos and anger of a failed pyramid scheme in which many citizens lost their life-savings. Critics have accused his party of vote rigging, corruption and abuse of power.

The gripe

Protesters have been calling for the resignation of Berisha since the 2009 elections in which Berisha claimed a second-term victory by an extremely narrow margin. The Socialists, led by Tirana Mayor Edi Rama, say the vote was stolen and have accused the Democrats of fraud.

The conflict has devolved into a political standoff between the country's leaders. Among complaints of corruption and poor leadership, some believe Berisha's government's lax enforcement was responsible for the 2008 ammunition dump explosion outside of Tirana that killed 26 people.

The timing

Anger against Berisha's government intensified after Deputy Prime Minister Iljir Meta resigned on Jan.14 in the wake of a huge corruption scandal in which he was caught on video appearing to agree to influence a $700,000 contract.

After months of protests, hunger strikes and other peaceful movements, the conflict escalated during Friday's protests, which ended with the killing of three demonstrators. Rama called the shootings "state terrorism." Berisha, in turn, said there would be no Tunisia-style uprising in his country, according to a report by the BBC.

"No one can seize power by violent means in this country," Berisha said at a press conference.

The protests

Tens of thousands of protesters marched in Tirana on Jan. 21 in support of Edi Rama's Socialist party. A group of about 250 taunted police with sticks and umbrellas before throwing stones and marble tiles from the Communist-era pyramid landmark to Enver Hoxha, the country's former dictator. Police retaliated with water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas until Republican guardsmen fired live shots into the crowd, killing three protesters. A fourth remains in critical condition with a gunshot wound to his head.

A government inquiry into the killings began on Tuesday, but the former deputy mayor for public works, Artan Lame, said it was "just theater."

The stakes

On Friday, a march organized by the Socialists is planned to memorialize the shooting victims, followed by a march for non-violence by the Democrats on Saturday. Most people in Tirana said they do not expect any more violence.

Few also expect any headway to be made in the standoff between Berisha and Rami. Berisha has called the unrest an attempted coup. Members of the European Union and the international community have called for restraint.

In a report by Reuters, Fatos Lubonja, a leading intellectual, journalist and former political prisoner, said, "The spiral of this conflict without an arbiter risks taking us either in the chaos of destabilization of a kind of civil war, or the installation of the dictatorship of the strongest."

— Jodi Hilton


The leader

Abdelaziz Bouteflika has been president of Algeria since April 1999. He amended the constitution in 2009 to allow him to run for a third five-year term, which he won easily after an opposition boycott.

Questions about the 73-year-old leader's health have arisen in recent years and Bouteflik's brother is widely expected to succeed him. Democratic freedoms have slowly eroded during his presidency, though he did see the country through the end of its long civil war.

The gripe

Like in Tunisia, many demonstrators critized the Algerian government's handling of rising food and fuel prices. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization announced this month that the food price index had risen 32 percent between June and December 2010. And prices are expected to climb even further in the coming year.

Protesters are demanding economic and political reforms. Protesters said they were tired of living within a government system that protects a small minority of privileged elite while repressing everyone else.

The timing

The demonstrations erupted after the government announced a steep increase in items such as milk, sugar and flour. But the Algerian public were surely inspired by the success of demonstrations in neighboring Tunisia.

The protests

In several Algerian towns, including the capital, riots broke out after the steep jump in food prices. Five Algerians set themselves on fire mimmicking the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia and more than 1,000 were injured during clashes between protesters and police.

Although the streets have been relatively quiet over the last week, human rights activists said they were planning several more demonstrations in the coming days.

The stakes

Few expect the protests, at least at their current level, to force any significant change in the country's leadership. Although calls for protest and change continue on Facebook, Twitter and on the streets, no large organized movement yet exists in Algeria.

— Aida Alami


The leader

In 1969, a young Libyan army officer named Muammar Gaddafi and his small band of cohorts overthrew the nation's King Idris in a coup d'etat. Col. Gaddafi has since ruled the North African nation of more than 6 million people – making him one of the longest serving leaders in the world.

U.S. diplomats, according to secret embassy cables released recently by WikiLeaks, have described Gaddafi as a "mercurial" leader; a man who prefers to wear sportswear in the company of other leaders, and conduct work from Bedouin-style tents to remain closer to his roots.

Aside from his outward eccentricity, human rights groups paint a picture of Gaddafi as a paranoid, singular leader with little patience for internal dissent. Opposition members are frequently jailed, silenced for speaking out publicly against Gaddafi.

The gripe

Libyan media is tightly controlled by the regime. Foreign journalists typically work under the observation of government minders, even at carefully orchestrated press junkets. Several reports, however, surfaced last month saying that protests in the eastern town of Bani Walid erupted over government subsidized housing.

Bani Walid, located just east of the capital Tripoli, was described by a Libyan opposition group, in Egypt's state-funded Al-Ahram online newspaper, as a town with "no basic services" and where "thousands of people are without houses and the local authority is corrupt, only delivering services with bribes."

The timing

With such tightly controlled media, it is unclear whether Libyan citizens are as inspired as their neighboring Egyptians have been by the recent unrest in Tunisia. What is certain is that Gaddafi appears to have been shaken by the departure of Tunisia's President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali following 23 years of rule.

"I am very pained by what is happening in Tunisia," Gaddafi said told Libya's state media, according to a Jan. 16 report by the Reuters news agency.

Reuters also reported that Gaddafi's government ordered import duties on foods to be cut earlier in January, another sign that he is cognizant of the factors that sparked Tunisia's uprising.

The protests

Demonstrations, in some cases described as "rioting," took place in Bani Walid for at least three consecutive days in mid-January, according to Al-Ahram. Hundreds of protesters broke into houses under construction. Construction sites were looted and equipment destroyed. A video on YouTube showed dozens of protesters burning tires in the roads.

Police forces, according to Al-Ahram, did not respond to clashes. Although small in scale compared to elsewhere in the region, any public opposition in Libya is rare and harshly discouraged by authorities.

The stakes

In the wake of Tunisian unrest, which saw an autocratic leader deposed after years of ironclad control, Libyans — like Egyptians and Algerians — might be awakening to the possibilities. After four decades of rule, Gaddafi's regime is starting to show signs of willingness to shed its pariah status in the international arena.

Still, the country ranked 160 out of 178 on the Press Freedom Index produced by Reporters Without Borders in 2010. Gaddafi might be watching Tunisia and the example of Ben Ali, a former friend, wondering how much longer his citizens will wait for their voices to be heard.

— Jon Jensen

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

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