Sunday, February 20, 2011

What's goin' down

This is going to be a rather long post but as it's broken into various bits, I hope it's not overlong. As I've said any number of times, this is not a site people do (or should) look to for breaking news. Still, the events of the past week in North Africa and the Middle East can't be ignored just because I can't do minute-by-minute - hell, day-by-day - updates.

But I decided I wanted to try to give an overview of where things stand in various places in the region as of this writing, which is late on Sunday night, despite knowing it may be outdated by the time anyone reads it. Or I finish it, for that matter.

Anyway, here it is, news I found from various sources, presented alphabetically by country as if you couldn't tell, with some commentary here and there. Perhaps it will be of use to some folks.

Algeria: For the second week in a row, thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators gathered in the capital city of Algiers on Sunday. And for the second week in a row the mass rally was disrupted by riot police brandishing clubs who forced their way through the crowd, breaking it into small groups that security forces could prevent from marching.

Even so, the government moved to placate the protesters, with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika promising to lift the state of emergency, which has been in place for about 19 years, while warning that the ban on protests in Algiers would remain.

It's doubtful that would satisfy the great number of the protesters in light of the government's notorious corruption and an estimated 42% unemployment rate among young people. They have indicated an intent to march every Saturday until the main demand - an end to Bouteflika's government - is met.

Bahrain: Six days of protests were capped on Friday by three massive funeral rallies in the capital of Manama for those killed in earlier demonstrations. According to the Guardian (UK), the turnout was above 50,000 – at least 5% of the entire population of the country and over one-third that of the city.
"We don't care if they kill 5,000 of us," a protester screamed inside the forecourt of the Salmaniya hospital, which has become a staging point for Bahrain's raging youth. "The regime must fall and we will make sure it does." ...

"Down with the king, down with the Khalifas," they cried, referring to the kingdom's ruling family. Anger among the overwhelmingly Shia Muslim demonstrators towards the Sunni dynasty that has ruled Bahrain for more than 200 years is now virulent.
Even so,
"No to Sunni; no to Shia," they cried at one point. "We are all Bahraini."
Towards evening, soldiers fired on one march, wounding at least 50 and prompting Crown Prince Salman, deputy commander-in-chief of the armed forces, to order the army off the streets. He also promised what one source called "a new dawn of free expression."

[v]arious sources reported that seven opposition groups demanding political reform in the country have agreed to meet to formulate a response to the government's call
for political dialogue. The opposition decided that pulling back the army and allowing protesters to re-occupy Pearl Square, the focus of previous protests from which they'd been violently driven on Thursday, was enough of a concession to engage in talks.

Iran: Supporters of the Green Movement gathered in Tehran for the second time within a week on Sunday to protest the killing of two protesters killed by police in the demonstrations on Tuesday. Thousands took part on Sunday but it was in a number of smaller groups which were met with riot police and plainclothed basiji militia who used tear gas and clubs to attack the protesters. An opposition website said that one person had been killed by police and dozens were arrested.
It was unclear how many people joined the demonstrations in Tehran on Sunday. Witnesses estimated that more than 30,000 people protested on Feb. 14, and some opposition Web sites suggested there were close to one million people. Whatever the precise turnout, these were the largest opposition protests since the disputed election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009.
Reports from opposition sources say protests occurred a number of other places besides Tehran, including Shiraz, Isfahan, Tabriz, Mashhad, Sanandaj, Rasht, and in Marewan Province in the Kurdistan region.

In a laughably transparent ploy, on Saturday the government had warned people to stay away from the demonstrations because, it claimed, members of a banned opposition group planned to shoot at demonstrators in order to incite the police to do the same. There is of course no way to know how big an effect that sort of blatant threat had on the turnout, but it obviously failed to prevent the protests.

It seems to me that the movement's slogan might be "Green is Forever." The opposition in Iran has been aggressively dispersed and officially denounced - but, "God Bless the Grass," it never seems to die off completely.

Iraq: Protests of sizes ranging from dozens to thousands have broken out in numerous places in Iraq over the past week. Karbala, Nassiriya, Wasit Province, Kut, Sulaimaniya, Thi-Qar Province, Ramadi, Falluja, and of course Baghdad have seen protests.
Unlike their regional counterparts, Iraqi protesters generally have not been calling for the removal of their elected government, installed just two months ago after months of tense negotiations between political factions.
Which is true - but they are calling for jobs, better pay, and improvement in public services such as electric power and water, and in several cases have demanded the resignation of local officials, who they say are often indifferent and corrupt.

Some of the protests have been the targets of official violence, with security forces shooting demonstrators. According to the Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq, police killed three and wounded sixty while suppressing the demonstrations in Wasit Province. Meanwhile, several dozen have been injured in a series of clashes in Sulaimaniya in the Kurdish area and a gang of about 30 armed men broke into a local TV station that had been covering those protests, wounded a guard, and burned the equipment. The same day, fires were set at three offices of Goran, a Kurdish opposition group.

The government is clearly worried: The cabinet has announced it is taking steps toward "improv[ing] the food ration card system and ... reforming the social benefits system" as well as "launching job opportunities" and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has made moves intended to reduce the level of anger, including
cutting his pay, reducing electricity bills, buying more sugar for the national food ration programme and diverting money from fighter jets to food.
It remains to be seen if, lacking a wholesale sacking of corrupt local officials, it will be enough.

Jordan: On each of the past several Fridays there have been anti-government protest in Amman with turnouts ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand. The protesters have been calling for an end to corruption, the creation of a constitutional monarchy, and the lowering of prices. The numbers are not massive but that they are happening at all is very unusual. The actions had been peaceful until this past Friday, when pro-government thugs attacked the demonstrators with clubs and metal pipes, injuring several.

Back on February 1, apparently aware of the potential for a threat to his position after what was then four weeks of demonstrations, King Abdullah II took steps intended to head off more protest. He had sacked his cabinet including the prime minister, replacing him with Marouf al-Bakhit, who is widely viewed as free of the taint of corruption. The government said Bakhit was charged with "taking practical, swift and tangible steps to launch a real political reform process." That appears to have satisfied some protesters - the rallies have been smaller of late - but clearly not all and the government may be feeling the pressure of the constant irritation of the weekly protests. This Friday may be revealing one way or the other.

Morocco: Ignoring a whisper campaign seeking to undermine their protest,
[t]housands staged rallies in Moroccan cities on Sunday demanding political reform and limits on the powers of King Mohammed VI, the latest protests demanding change that have rocked the region.
There were 4,000 people demonstrating in the capital Rabat and 4,000 more in Casablanca. Other cities including Marrakesh and Tangier also saw rallies. The calls were for political change, an end to corruption, and a democratic constitution.

Taken together, what was called an unprecedented show of political unity and strength turned out tens of thousands of protesters from various political strains despite calls from some established Islamic and socialist political parties for their members to stay home.
"We no longer want to be subjects," said Abdelilah Benabdeslam, a leader of the Moroccan Organization for Human Rights. "We want to be citizens."
Morocco is a hereditary monarchy and the king wields most official political power. Protesters want a new constitution and seemed to be calling for a constitutional monarchy - not to get rid of the king, but to limit his power. The idea of getting rid of the monarchy altogether is a social taboo in Morocco, so much so that it was the subject of that whisper campaign, which tried to portray the rallies as anti-monarchy.
The main rally in Rabat drew a massive tide of protesters that flooded the main streets and wound up before the parliament building. Unlike in Yemen, Bahrain and Libya, official permission was granted for the rally. No riot police were present, and the few uniformed security forces hung back, directed traffic or chatted amicably with demonstrators.
There were a few small scuffles reported in Rabat and elsewhere, but nothing serious. Then again, there often isn't at first. We'll see what happens if it develops that the protesters aren't just blowing off steam but persist in their efforts.

Tunisia: Protests at what can be considered the epicenter of the changes in the region are continuing. Protesters are calling for further changes in the interim government, in effect standing guard against the possibility of the revolution being coopted by the old guard. Meanwhile, that interim government wants Saudi Arabia to extradite ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to face charges on "severe crimes."

Yemen: Yemen has seen nine straight days of unrest calling for the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, with thousands participating in sit-ins in the cities of Ibb and Taiz and shots being fired at a demonstration in the capital Sana'a. At least 76 people, including seven soldiers, have been wounded in clashes and at least one protester has been killed.

Saleh, in power for 32 years, has called for opposition parties to continue pursuing a dialogue with his government, even as that opposition said it would join the protests, which so far have been driven largely by students at Sana'a University.

A commentator with the Inter Press news service suggested that protests in Yemen may have a problem catching fire the way they have elsewhere in the region because of "a complex context here [which] demands a different kind of political dialogue with power." The problem, simply put, is that the students don't trust either Saleh's ruling General People's Congress (GPC) or the opposition coalition known as the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP). They regard them both as corrupt and are of the mind that the JMP is getting involved to advance its own political interests, not that of the protesters. They want the protests to remain a "march of the people without leaders and middle-persons from the ruling and opposition groups."

Frankly, that seems rather naive to me. Even if their judgment about the JMP is correct and relations with them must be approached with caution so protests don't just turn into JMP campaign rallies, seeking to deal them out entirely is unwise and makes the students easy to isolate. Not to put too fine a point on it, but when you're risking at least your future and potentially your life, turning away potential (even if temporary) allies cannot be a good idea.

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