Unrest Spreads, Some Violently, in Middle East


egypt-mubarakFrom northern Africa to the Persian Gulf, governments appeared to flounder over just how to outrun mostly peaceful movements, spreading erratically like lava erupting from a volcano, with no predictable end.

The protests convulsed half a dozen countries across the Middle East on Wednesday, with tens of thousands of people turning out in Bahrain to challenge the monarchy, a sixth day of running street battles in Yemen, continued strikes over long-suppressed grievances in Egypt and a demonstrator’s funeral in Iran turning into a brief tug of war between the government and its opponents.

Even in heavily policed Libya, pockets of dissent emerged in the main square of Benghazi, with people calling for an end to the 41-year rule of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. Iraq, accustomed to sectarian conflict, got a dose of something new: a fiery protest in the eastern city of Kut over unemployment, sporadic electricity and government corruption. And the protesters in Bahrain were confronted Thursday morning by riot police officers who rushed into the main square in Manama firing tear gas and concussion grenades.

The unrest has been inspired partly by grievances unique to each country, but many shared a new confidence, bred in Egypt and Tunisia, that a new generation could challenge unresponsive authoritarian rule in ways their parents thought impossible.

Leaders fell back on habitual, ineffective formulas. A ban on strikes announced by the week-old military government in Egypt was ignored. The Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, called his Bahraini counterpart, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, to commiserate about the region’s falling victim to “foreign agendas,” according to the state-run Saba news agency.

“There are schemes aimed at plunging the region into chaos and violence targeting the nation’s security and the stability of its countries,” the news agency quoted Mr. Saleh as telling the king.

On one hand, each protest was inspired by a distinctive set of national circumstances and issues – dire poverty and a lack of jobs, ethnic and religious differences, minority rule, corruption, or questions of economic status.

But there was also a pervasive sense that a shared system of poor governance by one party, one family or one clique of military officers backed by brutal secret police was collapsing. A new generation has served notice that the social contract in play in the decades since independence around World War II was no longer valid.

Much of the generation in their 40s and 50s tried to effect change, but first accepted the empty promises of the rulers that change was coming. When it did not, many grew politically apathetic.

The protests are a fire alarm that the promises are not going to work anymore, said Sawsan al-Shaer, a Bahraini columnist. But governments that have stuck around for 20 to 40 years are slow to realize that, she said.

“Now the sons are coming, the new generation, and they are saying, ‘I don’t care that my father agreed with you – I am asking for more, and I am asking for something else,’ ” Ms. Shaer said.

Most rulers have surrounded themselves with a tight coterie of advisers and security officers for so long that they believe the advice that just a few young people are knocking around outside and will tire in good time, she said, even after the fall of the presidents in Tunisia and Egypt.

“The rulers don’t realize there is a new generation who want a better job, who want to ask what is happening, where did you spend the money?” Ms. Shaer said. “My father did not ask. I want to ask.”

The growing population throughout the 3,175-mile zone from Tehran to Tangier, Morocco, has changed too much, analysts believe, for the old systems to work.

“There is a contradiction between educating a lot of your population and creating a white-collar middle class and then ruling with an iron hand,” said Juan R. Cole, a professor of Middle East studies at the University of Michigan.

The continued eruptions present a particular challenge to the United States. It is caught between broadly supporting democracy in the region and tolerating the stability guaranteed by despots, analysts said. In addition, its ability to influence events is particularly limited with foes like Iran.

President Obama’s administration was accused of waffling on Egypt, trying to please the protesters while not really pushing President Hosni Mubarak, a longtime ally of the United States, to leave. It faces a similar dilemma in Bahrain, a crucial base for the United States Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

“For decades, the U.S. sort of prioritized stability over democracy because of oil and Israel,” said Marwan Muasher, a former foreign minister of Jordan who is the head of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The current policy is not sustainable,” he said, but changing it toward so many countries at once will be neither easy nor quick.

A main problem is the lack of a discernible end to the spreading protests. They could die down if governments engage in serious political changes, analysts said, and if the public is willing to accept gradual change. But old approaches like raising salaries or promising reforms as soon as the marchers disperse will only fuel the protest epidemic.

“Governments can no longer keep claiming they can take their time,” Mr. Muasher said, “can no longer invoke the need for a homegrown process as an excuse to do nothing.”

In Bahrain, tens of thousands of people, virtually all Shiites, poured into Pearl Square on Wednesday. They demanded changes in a system that they say has discriminated against them for decades on issues like housing, jobs and basic civil rights.

The scene had seemed more like a picnic earlier in the day, complete with deliveries of Kentucky Fried Chicken, but the crowd swelled at night, tying up roads as far as the eye could see and creating a peaceful celebration of empowerment unparalleled for the country’s Shiites, who make up about 70 percent of Bahrain’s 600,000 citizens.

But early Thursday morning, hundreds of riot police officers surrounded the square, firing tear gas containers and concussion grenades at the demonstrators. At least two people died as the officers aggressively emptied the square, according to witnesses at a nearby hospital and news agency reports.

In Egypt, the military government issued its initial estimate of the death toll during the 18 days leading up to Mr. Mubarak’s resignation. At least 365 civilians died, not including police officers and prisoners, said the health minister, Ahmed Sameh Farid.

Despite two warnings in three days from the government to halt protests and strikes, hundreds of airport employees protested inside the terminals at Cairo International Airport for higher wages and health benefits, The Associated Press reported. Flights were not disrupted.

Textile workers also walked out, and a group of 60 women and community groups condemned a panel that was appointed to rewrite the constitution for failing to include a single woman.

In Iran, students were thwarted in their attempt to hold a separate memorial service for Saane Zhaleh, an art student who was killed Monday during the protests, the largest in more than a year. The authorities staged an official funeral for Mr. Zhaleh, saying he was a vigilante, which the opposition called a lie.

But students said they were blocked from attending the official funeral, with Basiji vigilantes overwhelming the campus of the Tehran University of Art. The vigilantes also prevented the fewer than 100 students who had shown up early from staging their own memorial.

“He was one of us, a member of the Green movement, and they stole him from us,” a student who tried to attend the funeral said via an Internet link. She spoke anonymously out of fear for her own safety.

In Yemen, police officers were deployed in large numbers around Sana, the capital, and in Aden and the town of Taiz in an attempt to end street battles.

Students again organized protests at the capital’s central university, calling for Mr. Saleh’s ouster. But there were also clashes between antigovernment and pro-government demonstrators.

In Kut, Iraq, security forces opened fire, killing at least three people, according to a local government official. Protesters then stormed the governor’s headquarters and his house, burning both buildings. At least 27 people were injured, the official said. The protest was the most violent in Iraq since unrest began in the region last month. Until now, there had been several small, scattered demonstrations calling for better government services.

Wednesday’s protests were organized by a group called the Youth of Kut, which wants the governor of the province to step down because it says he has failed to create jobs and increase the supply of electricity. The protesters also say the governor, Latif Hamad al-Tarfa, has stolen money from the government.

{New York Times/Matzav.com}