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The (ongoing) chain of uprisings and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa in general and the Arab world in particular. More seriously, it's been named 2010–2011 Middle East and North Africa protests.
The events shook the world--as revolutions are wont to do--and took almost everyone (including the revolutionaries themselves) entirely by surprise. Almost every Arab country, plus Iran, was affected, most of them in a big way. Tunisia and Egypt saw thorough revolutions, Libya saw (and is still seeing) a Civil War, Yemen and Bahrain saw tremendous upheavals that might end up as revolutions or bloody fiascoes of Libyan or Tianamen proportions. Even Iraq got in the action, despite the obvious risks.
The two questions you're likely to see are: Why are the doing this? and What do these revolutionaries want? It's not simple, so...
It is of course a truism that happy countries are all alike, but every unhappy country is unhappy in its own way, so it's naturally hard to generalize about the reasons for uprising in each country that saw an uprising. Nevertheless, there are some similarities.
Pretty much every country in the region has been recognized to suffer from many of the same problems: corrupt, generally tyrannical governments, young populations, bad economies, huge income inequality, and truly ridiculous unemployment rates. You couldn't get anything without paying a bribe, the government was palling it up with Corrupt Corporate Executives left and right, good jobs were basically nonexistent for most people, and if you complained about it the Secret Police would get you and subject you to Cold-Blooded Torture (connecting a car battery to one's genitals was a particular favorite). And even if you could speak up, the government didn't care, because the population was young and the rulers were ancient, so they would dismiss any complaints as the whining of children. In other words, the situation for a very large segment of the population was extremely sucky. The mix of problems did from country to country, but (in retrospect), the mixture was just such that the right trigger could set it off. In retrospect, we say, because everyone -- and we mean everyone -- thought that the governments in the region had been so tyrannical for so long that the people had just given up on any prospect for change. Even when the ball got rolling, few believed that anything would happen until the second regime (Egypt) had pretty much fallen.
That's why millions of Arabs and Iranians poured out into the street early in 2011. What they want is another story -- and it may surprise a lot of people.
Pretty much every one of the protest movements/uprisings/rebellions/revolutions demanded much the same thing: an end to tyranny and corruption, and a restoration (or perhaps a "storation") of human rights, political freedoms, and basic human dignity under a genuinely democratic system--and, on a more immediate note, decent jobs with decent pay. Even the much-feared (in the West) Islamists were in agreement on this. More significantly, all of the movements had a basically secular character: Islamism had faded in importance in the previous five to ten years, and the Islamist parties were late to join in every single time anyway. Besides, Islamism itself had become more secular as people saw the model of Turkey, which is secular, democratic, prosperous, and highly influential under the government of an "Islamically-oriented" party. Or in short, Fox News Channel: You lie!
Another key point is the use of social media, The Internet, and mobile technology as a way of organizing a mass movement. The Egyptian edition is probably the first revolution with a Facebook page. Each time, Facebook, Twitter, and cell phones served as ways of getting out the word and bringing people into the streets. Once that happened, though, the movement generally had enough momentum on its own that it could do without any of that stuff--as proved by the Egyptian revolution, which really took off on 28 January 2011, for which the government had shut down the cell phone network and cut off the Internet for the whole country.
This introduction completed, we can now turn our attention to the precise chain of events that led to revolutions and uprisings and so on that winter:
The one that started it all, it has a peculiar history. Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit-and-vegetable vendor in the town of Sidi Bouzid, had consistent trouble with the police: he could not afford a license to operate his cart. Time after time, the police confiscated his cart, only for him to get it back and start selling, leading to yet another confiscation...you get the idea. On 16 December 2010, this happened one more time, leading to a confrontation between him and a local bureaucrat. Leaving in frustration, he returns to the square in front of the police station, douses himself in gasoline (or perhaps paint thinner), and lights himself on fire.
The event inspires a number of copycat incidents, and as news travels around the country, the people revolt, starting in Sidi Bouzid but eventually covering the whole country. The streets of the capital, Tunis, are filled with protesters. Work in the country grinds to a halt as the powerful trades union declares a general strike. Starting with general complaints about the state of the country, people eventually decide that what's necessary is a total change in the system, adopting the slogans Ben Ali dégage ("Ben Ali [the Tunisian dictator], clear out" in French: Tunisia was once a French colony) and Al-Sh`ab/Yurid/Isqa? al-ni?am! ("The People/Demand/The Downfall of the Regime!"), which became the main slogan of the revolutions to follow. After a few speeches idiotically claiming he was there to stay for the good of the country (only making the people angry), Ben Ali finally left on 14 January 2011, slinking to Saudi Arabia in the middle of the night (after France, Italy, and Malta had all refused to take him), probably under pressure from the military. After that, protests continued unabated as Tunisians kept pressing for everyone then in the government and loyal to Ben Ali to leave, to prevent The Thermidor. They have succeeded, to some degree, but the pace of change still isn't satisfying for many.
As exciting as the events in Tunisia were, they didn't seem to be a huge deal at the time. After all, Tunisia is a small country, without much influence or strategic importance. Though rumors of protest in other countries started to appear, very few believed it would get very far. So when someone in Egypt posted a Facebook event calling for a big protest on 25 January (Egypt's National Police Day and thus a day off) shortly after Ben Ali arrived in Jeddah, hardly anybody took it seriously. After all, Egypt was less-educated than Tunisia, had a lower internet penetration rate, was nearly a whole order of magnitude larger by population (10 million vs. 85 million), and had a government that was better-equipped to fight uprisings. Egypt was the rock of the whole region; it gave a semblance of calm and stability and moderation in an area wracked by turbulence; and Mubarak seemed to be as eternal as the Nile itself. Most analysts and other observers said that the chances of a Tunisian-style revolution in Egypt were only slightly better than the chances of a snowy day in Cairo.
These people were wrong. Dead wrong.
When 25 January rolled around, the protests were far larger than anyone expected. Thousands filled the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, and other cities across the country demanding the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak (who had been in power since 1981) and "the downfall of the regime"; Suez (as in the canal) saw extensive police violence. 15,000 marched their way through Cairo and broke through a police cordon to occupy Tahrir Square, the main square of the city. A few days later, on Friday 28 January (Friday is the Muslim Sabbath and thus a day off), there was yet another outpouring, this time even larger; Tahrir Square also became more or less permanently occupied. The government's attempt to slow things down by cutting off cell phone and internet in most or all of the country had no effect and may have actually made things worse. Also making things worse was the long-hated police, which treated protesters brutally; in response, protesters across Egypt set fire to pretty much every police station they could get their hands on (something they had probably would have liked to do for a very long time indeed). A curfew was set. Shortly after midnight, Mubarak addressed the nation, insulting the people by declaring a cabinet reshuffle. Yes. He also withdrew the police from the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez, to be replaced with the army: a good thing as far as Egyptians were concerned -- they thought the military would be on the people's side when the chips were down.
And lucky for them, they were right. But not before a whole bunch of nasty business.
When the police were withdrawn in the wee hours of 29 January, there was a prison escape occurred in most places across Egypt. At least, according to official reports. Less-official reports indicate that the police opened the prisons and turned the prisoners loose on the population--even forcing, at gunpoint, genuinely repentant criminals who wanted to serve out their terms to just leave. Looting, mugging, and murder ensued; ordinary Egyptian men, finding the army inadequate to defend their streets, took it upon themselves to arm themselves with sticks, poles, big knives, and what can only be described as swords to protect their homes and businesses from looters and thugs at night even as they protested in the daytime; a few took to directing traffic, as well.
This state of affairs continued for about two weeks until, after an idiotic speech much like the one Ben-Ali made, Mubarak left office on 11 January, giving power to the council of the Armed Forces. As in Tunisia, protests continued in order to avoid The Thermidor, demanding the resignation of the Prime Minister (check), the dissolution of the Secret Police (check, after thousands stormed their offices across the country), and the end of emergency rule (umm...we'll get back to you). A referendum on constitutional amendments is scheduled for 19 March; it's rather a hot topic in revolutionary circles.
Hoo boy. This is the bloody one.
Starting on 17 February -- less than a week after Mubarak's departure, the people of Libya started to revolt. And if anyone had a reason to revolt, it was the Libyans: the leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi (may his spellings be many) was/is certifiable; the secret police was brutal and pervasive (nobody dared to so much as tell a dumb political joke in anywhere even remotely public); and millions of citizens were out of work even as millions of foreigners came to work the oil fields (including, incidentally, 1.2 million Egyptians). The revolt started in the eastern city of Benghazi, traditionally opposed to Qaddafi's rule. It began peacefully, as with the others, with only a few skirmishes--but then Qaddafi decided to get serious. As protests spread across the country, the military received the order to open fire. Some units refused, joining the protesters instead (particularly in the east). In other cases, it was a massacre.
Eventually, the opposition began forcing the Qaddafi government out of cities entirely, and on 27 February, several leaders of the protest movement organized themselves into a "National Transitional Council." On 5 March, the NTC declared itself the legitimate government of Libya (which France, in a surprisingly ballsy move, recognized less than a week later), and the situation quickly devolved into something that can really only be described as war, and one in which the rebels are getting badly beaten. The situation got bad enough that there have been calls for a no-fly zone. Stay tuned for details.
Meanwhile, things have been going down in Bahrain. It is extremely complex, since the protesters don't simply want to get rid of the regime but rather establish a constitutional monarchy (like Britain has), and the situation is also tied to the fact that the ruling class is Sunni Muslim while the majority of the native population is Shiite, and (again) the unemployment of thousands of young Bahrainis even as thousands of foreigners come to Bahrain to work. This includes the police and the army, mostly drawn from Sunni-majority countries (like Syria and Pakistan) in exchange for citizenship. It's a bad situation--bad enough that the Bahraini government invited 1500 Saudi and Emirati troops to "keep the peace." Again, stay tuned for details.
This country is such a can of worms we're not even going to try. Shit was bad there long before anyone had even heard of Mohamed Bouazizi. Just take our word for it: It Got Worse. And better.
Soon after Tunisia blew up, next-door Algeria caught a mild case of the fever. The result was protests that asked for and got an end to the hated state of emergency; not much else changed, however. Iran saw an attempted revival of 2009's Green Movement, but given the time that the regime had had to consolidate its position, the protests were broken up fairly quickly. Iraq saw some pretty serious protesting throughout February; the Prime Minister promised some changes, but the results are still not clear. Jordan and Morocco saw smaller protests result in their respective kings making similar concessions in January and March, respectively. The people of Oman, of all countries, forced the Sultan to make a cabinet shakeup the results of which are (again) not clear. And Syria and Saudi Arabia, possibly the most oppressive regimes in the region, saw the people put on the best shows they could before they were brutally broken up by police.
First of all, let's just say that Israel is really freaking scared. That ought to be that.
In a general sense, most countries initially looked at the protests with alarm, gradually mellowing to cautious optimism as the situation became clearer. For obvious reasons, China banned most coverage of the protests, but at the same time immediately began production of assorted revolutionary nicknacks (particularly Tunisian and Egyptian flags) for the Arab market. Yes, this is a very modern revolutionary wave.
Tropes exhibited by this event include:Edit
- Arab Oil Sheikh: The King of Bahrain, whom the Bahrainis surprisingly have no problem with; their target is the rest of his family, and particularly his uncle the Prime Minister, who also fit this.
- The Caligula: Before the revolutions, Qaddafi was already acting in a way that can best be described as "eccentric". With the beginning of the Libya uprising, he's fully charged into this.
- Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys: Inverted. France took the lead in the Libya situation, recognizing the Transitional Council extremely quickly. That takes balls.
- Not to mention that they were the first to launch air attacks on the Libyan government following the passage of UNSCR 1973, even before the British and Americans had begun to disable the country's anti-aircraft defense network.
- Complete Monster: Qaddafi, by consensus. See Moral Event Horizon.
- Defector From Decadence: As Arab leaders become more vulnerable (and desperate) many of their supporters announce their defections to the opposition. Whether this is genuine disgust at their increasingly brutal actions or political opportunism is something we may want to avoid discussing.
- Even Evil Has Standards: Qaddafi's response to the protests have been so violent that the Arab League took a vote and declared Qaddafi's regime illegitimate. You know there's something wrong when Middle Eastern strongmen find you appalling.
- Enemy Mine: The rest of the Arab League have no problem getting rid of that crazy lunatic who declared war on them numerous times and tried to subvert their precious dreams of a Pan-Arabic Federation. And if the West busy itself playing war with the regional Scrappy while the Arab League does exactly what Qaddafi is doing, all the better.
- Still, the fact that they went and basically asked the United Nations to support the overthrow one of their own is no small act.
- Heel Face Turn: Moussa Koussa (no really), Libyan Foreign Affairs Minister and Gaddafi's most trusted agent, defected shortly after violence began in his country.
- Man On Fire: Started with Mohamed Bouazizi and went on from there.
- Moral Event Horizon: By consensus, Qaddafi basically declaring war on his people. At that moment, Qaddafi lost all his friends, with the possible exception of Hugo Chavez.
- Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: Cutting off communications and trying to control the protests with violence--including guns -- only made the people angrier and more willing to overthrow the regime. Kudos to you, Mubarak!
- Permanent Elected Official: The presidents of Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen had all been in power for 25-30 years, and showed no signs of leaving until the people made them.
- Subverted with Qaddafi, who has no official government post, which is one of arguments for not resigning, as he has no post to resign from. Not that there's any doubt he's calling the shots.
- Protest Song: Only Egypt could produce a soft-rock protest anthem.
- Secret Police: In pretty much every one of the countries that saw these events. After the storming of its headquarters and the discovery of its documents, Egypt's State Security Investigations Service (SSIS) proved to be nearly as bad as the Stasi in terms of spying on the people.
- To put it in perspective, the Stasi, according to conservative official estimates, employed 174,000 informants, or about 2.5% of the country's population of 16 million. Out of Egypt's population of 80 million, the police employed 3.75%. Even when you subtract the number (no more than a 1-1.5 million) who were official police and paramilitaries, that's still pretty damned high—higher than any state of the old Eastern Bloc except perhaps East Germany (the official ratio of informants to citizens in East Germany was 1:66; Egypt's ratio is on the low end with 1 million informants—or 1:80—or on the high end 2 million —1:40). And then you consider that these numbers only count those who were on the SSIS payroll as full-time informants... Big Brother Is Watching, indeed.
- The Song Before the Storm: Mohamed Mounir's "Ezzai" turned out to be one of these. Banned in Egypt when it first came out (in early 2010) for its obvious and sharp criticism of the government -- to say nothing of Mounir's incredible popularity--it so perfectly expressed Egyptian sentiments in the early days of the revolution that it basically became one of the anthems of the movement. The lyrics are rather fascinating, as they're basically the words of an angry/disappointed man to his cruel lover...but directed at Egypt, the Motherland. Yes. It's also incredibly catchy.
- What the Hell, Hero?: Russia has called out the international coalition on using the UN resolution to take sides in a civil war.