Social media revolution ignites Middle East and North Africa

After the Tunisia’s Twitter revolution and the social media-fueled protests in Egypt that toppled both their presidents, the social media revolution is spreading to other areas of North Africa and the Middle East.

Who could have imagined the speed and depth of the popular uprisings ignited by anti-government sentiment with timbers of anger piled sky high because of authoritarian repression, economic stagnation and loss of hope?

I became enraged by the death of Neda Soltan, a young woman in Iran who was shot and killed by a police sniper as she watched pro-democracy demonstrators on the streets of Tehran in 2009.

Graphic images of her grasping her last breath of air become a worldwide rallying cry for social media users throughout the world as we became one with her in the struggle thanks to Twitter and YouTube.

Iran’s leaders ironically applauded the demonstrators in Tahrir Square in Cairo, but yet have tried to quash its own protestors and have put leaders of the government’s opposition under house arrest.

Protest of old featured rock- and stone-throwing youths, but in today’s world, words on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are more powerful in mobilizing the masses, building worldwide support and forcing old men to step down.

Tunisia’s and Egypt’s uprisings are spreading to at least 10 countries in which Facebook posts and tweets are organizing protestors across North Africa and the Middle East.

Tonight, I met native Egyptian Bill Makari, a housing development owner who now lives in Orange County, Calif., who shared in the jubilation for the victory of protestors in an audioBoo podcast interview.

Those protestors received a big boost in political support from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

As she announced plans for the U.S. to spend $25 million annually to support online dissidents, she added, “Those who clamp down on Internet freedom may be able to hold back the full impact of their people’s yearnings for a while, but not forever.”

Clinton forcefully called free access to the social web a “fundamental human right.”

“We believe that governments who have erected barriers to Internet freedom – whether they’re technical filters or censorship regimes or attacks on those who exercise their rights to expression and assemble online – will eventually find themselves boxed in,” Clinton said.

During my post a month ago about Tunisia’s so-called Jasmine revolution or Twitter revolution, I wondered if Egypt might next. I along with many other bloggers correctly identified the power of a Facebook page to ignite largely peaceful demonstrations that ousted Egyptian President Hosani Mumbarak.

I think Yemen will be next followed by the Gulf island nation of Bahrain.

Here is an interesting “corruption index” compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit as reported by the London-based BBC News.

YEMEN

Following days of protests, Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced on Feb. 2 that he would not seek another term in office, after three decades in power.
He also told parliament that he would not hand over power to his son, saying: “No extension, no inheritance, no resetting the clock.”

But protests continue, with people taking to the streets in the cities of Sanaa, Aden and Taiz.

Anti-government protesters demanding political reform have clashed with pro-government loyalists and police have been sent in to break up the demonstrations.

Yemen is the Arab world’s most-impoverished nation, where nearly half of the population lives on less than $2 a day.

LIBYA

Hundreds of people are reported to have taken to the streets of the Libyan city of Benghazi – ahead of a day of demonstrations.

Protests of any kind are prohibited in Libya, but the latest unrest was triggered by the arrest of a lawyer who is an outspoken critic of the government.

There have been calls on the internet for a day of protests on Feb. 17.

Latest reports from Benghazi say it is now calm.

Colonel Gaddafi is the longest serving ruler in Africa and the Middle East, and also one of the most autocratic.

EGYPT

President Hosni Mubarak announced he was stepping down on Feb. 11 after 18 days of protests.

Aged 82, he had been in power since 1981.

Egypt had long been known as a centre of stability in a volatile region, but that masked problems which erupted in popular demonstrations against the 30-year rule of President Mubarak on Jan. 25.

The main drivers of the unrest were poverty, rising prices, social exclusion, anger over corruption and personal enrichment among the political elite, and a demographic bulge of young people unable to find work.


With President Mubarak gone, Egypt’s Armed Forces Supreme Council will run the country for the next six months, or until elections are held.

The Islamist and conservative Muslim Brotherhood would be expected to do well in any free and fair elections, but fears of a lurch towards Islamist rule is the main worry for Western powers and Israel.

SYRIA

Calls for a “day of rage” to coincide with the fall of Egypt’s President Hosnic Mubarak failed to materialise into a demonstration and so far the country has remained calm.

President Bashar al-Assad has promised to push through political reforms after inheriting power from his father, Hafez, in 2000, after three decades of authoritarian rule.

The country remains under emergency law, in place since 1963. Following the death of Hafez al-Assad, Syria underwent a degree of relaxation. Hundreds of political prisoners were released.

But the granting of real political freedoms and a shake-up of the state-dominated economy have not materialized.

SAUDI ARABIA

One of the most devout and insular countries in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has emerged from being an underdeveloped desert kingdom to become one of the wealthiest nations in the region thanks to vast oil resources.

But its rulers face the delicate task of responding to pressure for reform while combating a growing problem of extremist violence. It has always been in the ruling al Saud family’s interests to preserve stability in the region and to clamp down on extremist elements.

Opposition movements are banned within the country.

Regionally, the country is important with King Abdullah Bin-Abd-al-Aziz Al Saud regarded in the Arab world as a supporter of wider Arab interests.

It was to Saudi Arabia that Tunisia’s ousted leader, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, fled in January.


ALGERIA

Sporadic protests have been continuing since early January, with demonstrators demanding the resignation of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Protest groups united in their opposition to the government include small trade unions and minor political parties.

The trigger for the unrest appears to be mainly economic – in particular sharp increases in the price of food.

Earlier this month President Bouteflika promised to lift the country’s state of emergency – in place in since 1992 – in the “near future”, but hasn’t done so yet.

Algeria’s government has considerable wealth from its oil and gas exports and is trying to tackle social and economic complaints with a huge public spending program.

JORDAN

Thousands of Jordanians have taken to the streets over the past five weeks, demanding better employment prospects and cuts in foods and fuel costs.

In response, King Abdullah II sacked Prime Minister Samir Rifai over the slow pace of reform and appointed Marouf al-Bakhit, a former army general and ambassador to Israel.

A new 26-member cabinet was sworn in on Feb. 10.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is a small country with few natural resources, but it has played a pivotal role in the struggle for power in the Middle East.

The death of King Hussein, who ruled for 46 years, left Jordan still struggling for economic and social survival, as well as regional peace.

His son, Abdullah, who succeeded him to the throne, faces the task of maintaining stability while accommodating calls for reform.

A blueprint for long-term political, economic and social change – known as the National Agenda – has yet to be implemented.

TUNISIA

Protests have continued in Tunisia – despite President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s decision to step down in January.

He fled the country following weeks of anti-government demonstrations and clashes between protesters and police.

The trigger was a desperate act by a young unemployed man on Dec. 17. Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself when officials in his town prevented him from selling vegetables on the streets of Sidi Bouzid without permission.

This set off protests which then spread elsewhere. The violent response of the authorities – with the police opening fire on demonstrators – appears to have exacerbated anger and ignited further protests which ultimately led to the president’s downfall.

Parliamentary Speaker Foued Mebazaa has been sworn in as interim president and has asked Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, head of the government since 1999, to form a national unity government.

The prime minister has also pledged to step down after elections in about six months’ time.

MORROCO

Morocco’s main opposition group has warned the “autocracy” will be swept away unless there are deep economic reforms.

Morocco has been facing severe economic problems. It has announced an increase in state subsidies to try to counter commodity price rises.

Earlier this year, Morocco’s reputation was damaged after Wikileaks revealed allegations corruption involving the royal family and the people close to King Mohammed VI.

The king says the fight against poverty is a priority, earning him the name “guardian of the poor.” Economic liberalisation has attracted foreign investment and officials point to better basic services in shanty towns and rural areas.

But some non-government groups say little has changed, with poverty still widespread and unemployment remaining high. Morocco is dogged by strikes by both private and public.

Morocco, like Egypt and Algeria, does allow limited freedom of expression and has so far been able to contain protests. Like Jordan it is a monarchy with strong support among sections of the public.

BAHRAIN

Protesters are gathering the Bahraini capital Manama after two days of clashes with police in which two people died.

Bahrain is vulnerable to unrest because of discontent among its majority Shia population against the ruling Sunni dynasty.

The Al-Khalifas have ruled the country since the 18th century.

Protesters complain of economic hardship, lack of political freedom and discrimination in jobs in favour of Sunnis.

Since coming to power in 1999, King Hamad bin Issa Al Khalifa has pushed economic and political reforms to improve relations with the Shia community.

The country, which is a regional banking, trading and Islamic finance hub, became a constitutional monarchy in 2002.

IRAN

The government in Tehran has called for a rally on Friday (Feb. 18) to express hatred for the opposition movement.

It follows demonstrations organised by the regime’s two main opposition leaders earlier in the week in support of the unrest in neighbouring countries. The protest quickly turned into anti-government unrest which left two people dead and others injured.

Iran’s complex and unusual political system combines elements of a modern Islamic theocracy with democracy.

A network of unelected institutions, controlled by the highly powerful conservative Supreme Leader, is countered by a president and parliament elected by the people.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, elected in 2005, is a hard-liner who has vowed to put down any protests against the regime.

He has accused demonstrators of wanting to “tarnish the Iranian nation’s brilliance.”

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