A region in upheaval

Editor's note: This story was updated on Feb. 28 to reflect the latest developments in the region.

First it was Tunisia. Then it was Bahrain, Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, Albania, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. Now it's Libya. 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? Why now? 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 months.

TUNISIA

Protesters call on their new government to step down in central Tunis on Jan. 22, 2011.
(Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images)

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 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

 


EGYPT

Egyptian demonstrators protest near Egyptian police to demand the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak on Jan. 25, 2011.
(Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images)

The Leader:

Egypt's now former 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 never came easy. Political competition in Egypt was virtually non-existent. Mubarak’s National Democratic Party had 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, which sparked the week-long uprising that culminated Tuesday with hundreds of thousands flooding Cairo's Tahrir Square, 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.

The unrest that has engulfed Cairo since has been larger than the country has seen in decades. Tens of thousands have overwhelmed the country's security forces, which have now largely withdrawn. The country's military announced Monday it would not fire on protesters, dealing a perhaps fatal blow to Mubarak. But in a speech Mubarak tried to meet protester demands by announcing he would not run September's elections. Demonstrators, however, said the concession wasn't enough — they want Mubarak to step down immediately.

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, leading to a week of demonstrations. Hundreds of thousands flooded Cairo's central Tahrir Square on Tuesday. Police appeared completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who dared to challenge them.

Initially, police tried to crush the uprising with beatings, tear gas, water cannons and rubber-coated bullets. More than 150 people have so far been killed and thousands more injured during the clashes over the past week.

Violence erupted again on Feb. 2 when supporters of Mubarak clashed with anti-government demonstrators in Tahrir Square. The two sides tossed rocks and chunks of asphalt back and forth, causing numerous injuries.

Peace returned to the square after Friday prayers on Feb. 4 as anti-government demonstrators regrouped. The protests persisted in the square until Feb. 11, when Mubarak finally resigned.

The Stakes:

Mubarak is 82 years old and his health rumored to be in decline. Speculation over the future of the nation’s leadership has become the parlor game of choice in Egypt, and even more so now that Mubarak has resigned. Many had worried that Mubarak’s son Gamal had been being groomed for the job. But he is has now fled to London.

An election for Egypt’s presidency is scheduled for September. What happens in the meantime is yet to be seen. The military has assumed power, a situation that will likely only temporarily appease the protesters, who have always demanded that Egypt move to a western-style democracy.

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.

Egypt's future, meanwhile, will have major implications for the United States and regional governments.

Jon Jensen

 


LEBANON

Lebanese look on as a vehicle burns during a demonstration in support of the caretaker prime minister Saad Hariri in the Sunni bastion coastal city of Tripoli on Jan. 25, 2011.
(Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)

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

 


YEMEN

Yemeni students protest outside Sanaa University.
(Gamal Noman/AFP/Getty Images)

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. Protests again erupted in what the opposition billed as a "Day or Rage," on Feb. 3. Thousands of anti-government protesters rallied in the capital, but they were met by an equal number of Saleh supporters, who were likely organized by the government. Things remained quiet until Mubarak stepped down, sparking renewed efforts to oust Saleh in Yemen.

For the first time on Feb. 19, police opened fire on protesters outside Sanaa University, wounding four. Pro-government thugs continued to clash with anti-government protesters after people dispersed following the gunfire, in a clear sign that protests were continuing to gain momentum on the ninth consecutive day.

The protests have also been 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 protests continued in Sanaa. Two protesters were killed on Feb. 22, the first fatalities in a week of peaceful demonstrations outside Sanaa University in Yemen's capital, according to paramedics at the protest.

Ten other men were wounded when shots were fired from amid pro-government demonstrators into the crowd in a significant escalation of tensions in the country, people who witnessed the shooting said.

Protesters said the gunmen were pro-government supporters. The Yemeni government denies any connection to the armed men.

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, they did force Saleh to announce he would not seek re-election beyond 2013.

— Tom Finn

 


JORDAN

Jordanians sing and shout slogans as trade unionists hold a sit-in outside the Tunisian embassy in Amman on Jan. 15, 2011.
(Khalil Mazraawi/AFP/Getty Images)

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 first major 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, to keep pressure on the government, held another demonstration on Jan. 28, which, perhaps because protesters had been further emboldened by the Egyptians, lasted for days. Jordan's king announced Feb. 1  the sacking of the entire cabinet and the appointment of a new prime minister, who the king ordered to immediately form a new government and institute political reform. Smaller protests were held in support of Egypt's uprising outside the Egyptian embassy on Feb. 4.

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.

The protests have already lead to a change of government and Habib said it was likely that the new government would take steps to appease the population, including the economic and political reforms. Habib said there was "no doubt" that the elections law in Jordan will be reformed, a major step for Jordan. She said Tunis' impact on the region is that it "it forced the leadership to listen."

— Amy Hybels

 


ALBANIA

A youth looks out from inside a burnt-out police car next to an Albanian goverment building in Tirana on Jan. 22, 2011, a day after a deadly anti-government riot that killed three people.
(Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)

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.

Two officers have been detained in connection with the killings, but the former deputy mayor for public works, Artan Lame, said earlier it was all “just theater.”

The Stakes:

Few 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

 


ALGERIA

People wave Algerian flags on Jan. 22, 2011 in Marseille, southern France, in support of local pro-democracy demonstrations in Algeria.
(Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images)

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 Bouteflika'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 have been injured during clashes between protesters and police in recent weeks.

On Feb. 14, after more protests, Algeria's government said it would rescind a long-standing emergency law used to justify security crackdowns on opposition movements. On Feb. 19, hundregs again protested in May 1 Square in Algiers. They were met by thousands of police officers, and dozens were wounded.

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.

The Boutaflika government has responded by putting a subsidy on food prices and promising to create more jobs.

— Aida Alami

LIBYA

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi arrives at the Ciampino airport on August 29, 2010 in Rome, Italy. (Ernesto Ruscio/Getty Images)

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 strongly controlled media, it was not clear clear whether Libyan citizens would be as inspired as their neighboring Egyptians by the recent unrest in Tunisia. 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.

But that was not enough. Libya's protests arrived.

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. Police forces, according to Al-Ahram, did not respond to clashes.

Protests escalated in February, with Libyan security forces reportedly killing scores of protesters the week of Feb. 14. The death toll is estimated at 1,000 mainly in the eastern cities of Benghazi, Bayda and Tobruk.

A brutal crackdown did not succeed in stopping the opposition, which won control of Benghazi and the east of the country. The U.S. ordered all non-essential staff to leave Libya.

Gaddafi still holds the most of Tripoli, which is home to 2 million of Libya's 6.5 million people. But Zawiya, a town of 200,000 about 30 miles west of Tripoli, is the nearest population center to Tripoli to fall into the opposition hands. Police stations and government offices inside the city have been torched and anti-Gaddafi graffiti was everywhere.

In one speech, Gaddafi blamed Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda for inciting the protests. He said Al Qaeda forces had given "hallucinogenic" drugs to youth in Libya — "in their coffee with milk, like Nescafe" — to get them to incite unrest.

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 may put up a fight, but it is not clear if he will be able to avoid becoming the next longtime leader to be topple from power.

— Jon Jensen

 

SYRIA

Syrians hold candels during a sit-in at Bab Tuma in old Damascus on Jan. 31, 2011.
(Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images)

The Leader:

It’s been 11 years since Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father Hafez, a former fighter pilot who emerged from a string of military coups to rule Syria with a grip so tight billboards across the land still proclaim him president for life and citizens dare not speak his name.

Bashar, the young trainee eye doctor and head of the Syrian Computing Society, who met his wife Asma while she was an investment banker in London, found himself catapulted into power after his exuberant older brother Basil, the heir Hafez had been grooming, died in a car crash. Bashar was confirmed as president in an unopposed referendum and re-elected with 97 percent of vote in 2007.

Despite projecting a softer image than his father, Bashar has emerged from five years of intense U.S.-led pressure over accusations of Syria destabilizing Iraq and Lebanon, and isolation from Arab neighbors, with his credentials as a strongman much enhanced, certainly in the eyes of many Syrians.

The Gripe:

Like Egypt, Syria’s ruling Baath party has kept in force emergency laws enacted on the first day it came to power in 1963. The state of emergency suspends many aspects of Syria’s Constitution, allowing for the arrest of citizens on a broad range of charges such as “weakening national sentiment” and “working against the goals of the revolution”.

The Damascus Spring, a brief few months of relative openness following Assad’s succession, quickly turned to winter as security services continued their systematic repression of political and human rights activists, arresting members of the pro-democracy Damascus Declaration, censoring websites, detaining bloggers and banning opponents from leaving the country.

Poverty levels in Syria remain stubbornly high, with one in ten living on less than $1 a day, and the government is treading a fine line as it seeks to reform a corrupt, Soviet-era, centrally planned economy, lifting unsustainable subsidies on basic commodities and allowing growth of the free market while maintaining assistance to the poor.

Yet Syria’s economy is doing much better than Tunisia or Egypt: Official unemployment figures range from eight to 12 percent, though independent economists put it closer to 20 percent; still roughly half the figures for Egypt, where state salaries are also half those in Syria.

The Timing:

A Facebook page called ‘The Syrian Revolution 2011’ called for peaceful protests outside Damascus’ parliament after prayers on Feb. 4.

The group had drawn nearly 14,000 ‘likes’ from Facebook users, but from messages on its homepage the movement appeared to be largely driven by people living outside Syria. A local journalist who spent time at parliament said no group had gathered there, with local rights activists playing down the chances of any mass rallies.

The Protests:

Though opposition and pro-government figures said that large anti-government protests were unlikely to occur in Syria — the Feb. 4 demonstration never took place, for instance — an estimated 1,500 people took to the streets of Damascus opn Feb. 17, after a shopkeeper's son was allegedly beaten by police.

Protesters, who held their ground for three hours in the Hariqa area of the Old City, were heard chanting “the Syrian people will not be humiliated," though they fell short of calling for political change.

In a bizarre scene, the interior minister drove into the gathering and addressed the crowd. "This is a demonstration," he said, almost stunned as he stood among the protesters.

Such a spontaneous demonstration is unprecedented in Syria. Though elected unopposed, the president commands genuine support from a wide cross section of Syrian society, even if members of the ‘old guard’ in his regime remain feared and hated.

Syria’s secret police, whose reach penetrates all levels of Syrian society keep very close tabs on opposition figures inside the country. When a small group of people turned up for a candle lit vigil outside the Egyptian embassy in Damascus last Sunday, the police were there in their dozens, filming demonstrators and demanding to see identification.

Three days later when a group of 20 people in civilian clothing beat a small group of 15 demonstrators holding a similar vigil, the police did nothing to stop them.

Any pro-democracy demonstrations that do succeed in breaking the grip of fear are likely to be quickly swamped by pro-Assad rallies involving members of Syria’s Baath-controlled Student Union, as occurred in 2005 when Syria was under pressure over Lebanon.

In an apparent attempt to preempt any major demonstrations and perhaps a shot across the bow of its critics, the Syrian government lifted restrictions on the country's internet usage, including a ban on a Facebook.

The Stakes:

Like Mubarak in Egypt, Syria’s leadership presents itself as a secular bulwark against the inevitable take-over of the country by the fundamentalists of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In 1982, the Muslim Brotherhood led an uprising against Hafez al-Assad which was brutally put down when the army was ordered to shell Hama, a large city north of Damascus, killing between 10,000 and 25,000 people, the huge majority civilians.

There are also deep-rooted sectarian and ethnic tensions within Syrian society, which the regime claims to keep a lid on but which opposition figures claim its rule has only entrenched.

The backbone of the regime is drawn from the minority Allawi sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while three quarters of Syria’s population are Sunni Muslims. The country also has a large, marginalized Kurdish population, many of whom aspire to secede northeast Syria into the semi-autonomous Kurdistan of neighboring Iraq.

 

IRAN

An Iranian protester throws a stone at riot police during an anti-government demonstration in Tehran on Feb. 14, 2011. (Getty Images)

The Leaders:

Before he won presidential elections in 2005, few Iranians knew who Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was. Since he burst onto the political scene, he has become one of the most controversial figures both at home and abroad. From denial of the Holocaust to claiming no gays exist in Iran, the country’s sixth president, has raised eyebrows through out his term.

In the summer of 2009, in what became the country’s most violent unrest since the Islamic Revolution, Iranians poured in the streets to protest Ahamdinejad’s re-election, which they said was rigged.

Despite the protests, the country’s supreme leader, Seyyed Ali Khamenei, approved Ahmadinejad’s election.

Khamenei himself is considered the most powerful player in Iranian politics. He seized power after the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini — who ousted the Shah of Iran in 1975, to establish the 32-year-old Islamic Republic. Khamenei appoints and oversees key positions in Iran, among them the head of judiciary, radio and television, military leaders, members of the Guardian Council and Friday prayer leaders.

The Gripe:

Mehdi Karoubi and Mir Hussein Mousavi, the defeated candidates of the June 2009 presidential elections, claimed the election was rigged and protested the results from the moment they were announced.

A segment of the Iranian population that also believed their votes had been “stolen” followed their lead and took to the streets. In a few days, what started as a peaceful rally calling for the recount of the votes, turned deadly as the Basiji militia, which is affiliated with government security forces, opened fire on protesters, killing and injuring many. Among those killed was Neda Agha Sultan, whose death was captured on a cell phone and seen around the world.

After a vicious crack down, the opposition recoiled, fearing beatings, arrests and death.

Recent executions, suppression and economic hardships have all poured fuel on the fire.

The Timing:

With uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt successfully forcing their longtime authoritarian rulers to flee, Iranian opposition leaders saw a window of opportunity for the revival of what has become known as the “Green Movement.” They requested a permit for demonstrations in support of the Egyptian people but were denied. All the same, opposition supporters heeded the call by coming out on Feb. 14.

The Protests:

The most recent protests started on the eve of Feb.14. Calls of “God is great” came out from the rooftops in Tehran. But on the following morning a protester climbed up a crane in Tehran holding a picture of some of the “martyrs” from the opposition movement, and a green flag. He threatened to jump if approached. Later in the day, protesters marched toward two main squares in Tehran — Enghelab and Azadi. It started as a peaceful march but soon turned violent when protesters clashed with security forces. Two people were killed, according to reports. One, Sani Zaleh, a Kurdish art student at Tehran University who died on the scene, and another, Mohammad Mokhtari. Official media reported 1,500 arrests.

Green Movement supporters turned out again on Feb. 20, observing the traditional Shiite seven-day mourning period for the two protesters killed.

The Stakes:

The stakes are high both for the opposition and the Iranian leaders. Both Ahmadinejad and other officials openly and vehemently supported the “rights” of the Egyptian people, even asking the Egyptian military not to use force. Then the world watched on Monday as they crushed protests in their own country. With uprisings spreading throughout the region, the Iranian leadership can no longer afford to ignore the opposition in Iran.

 

BAHRAIN

Thousands of Bahraini protesters gather in the capital, Manama, on Feb. 15, 2011.
(Adam Jan/AFP/Getty Images)

The Leader:

King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa has ruled the tiny Gulf state of Bahrain since 1999, when he succeeded his father, Isa bin Salma.

Upon his ascension to the throne, King Hamad began a series of political reforms, granting more rights to women and ending an era in Bahrain known for extreme repression and brutal torture.

Aided by record high oil prices in the past decade, King Hamad turned his island-state from a backwater port into an affluent nation where the average home earns more than $40,000. King Hamad formed strong ties to the United States at an early age, starting with his attendance at the Army Command and Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

The Gripe:

Bahrain is the smallest state in the Gulf at just under the size of New York City’s five boroughs — but its sectarian divide is enormous.

King Hamad and his Sunni leadership in Bahrain rule over the island’s more than 700,000 residents, the majority of which are from the Shiite sect of Islam.

Though Bahrain is religiously tolerant, the Shiite majority has long complained of political and economic discrimination, especially the lack of representation in the upper echelons of government and the squalor of some Shiite communities outside the capital.

And although U.S. diplomats called King Hamad a leader who “understands that Bahrain cannot prosper if he rules by repression,” in secret cables released by WikiLeaks, several human rights groups have criticized the kingdom’s recent return to the use of torture during interrogations.

The Timing:

Bahrain has witnessed a number of small clashes between the state’s security forces and Shiite minority since 2007. But protests this week in Bahrain were timed and heavily influenced by the recent success of opposition groups in Tunisia and Egypt.

On Feb. 15, demonstrators marched directly to the Pearl Roundabout, a major traffic circle in the capital Manama. Some protesters are referring to it as “Bahrain’s Tahrir,” the city center in Cairo that provided a focal point for Egyptian demonstrators calling for the ouster of Hosni Mubarak.

The Protests:

Thousands of protesters, primarily in Shiite villages near the capital, marched the week of Feb. 14. Some, however, have demonstrated under the slogan, “Not Sunni, Not Shiite, just Bahraini,” implying that a broader cultural cross-section of Bahrainis are interested in changing the status quo.

After two days of a violent crackdown that left at least five dead, Bahrain leaders withdrew tanks and riot police from Pearl Square on Feb. 19. Thousands of protesters cheered at the military withdrawal, pouring back into the square in jubilation. Though many remained wary of the regime's intentions and still called for a change in leadership.

Government forces had been quick to open fire on peaceful protesters Feb. 17 and 18. As many as 50 people were injured in clashes on Feb. 18, which occurred as hundreds of youths who had attended the funeral of a protester killed earlier began walking to the square. Early on Feb. 17, security forces raided an open camp where protesters were sleeping and in the ensuing violence of tear gas and rubber bullets, at least three people were killed.

The Stakes:

The economic and political stakes for prolonged unrest in tiny Bahrain would be huge for the entire region.

Bahrain’s Sunni neighbors, most notably the monarchy in Saudi Arabia, would be wary to see an Egypt-style toppling of a neighboring king, especially by a Shiite-led group. The Saudis fear a greater Iranian influence on their backdoor in Bahrain, which is separated only by a 16-mile long causeway over the Gulf.

Bahrain is also a great ally of the United States, offering proximity and a strategic counterbalance to Iranian influence. Bahrain is home to a major U.S. naval base serving the Fifth Fleet, and houses two U.S. Patriot missile batteries, according to a 2009 secret American cable released by WikiLeaks.

— Jon Jensen