Forget dead birds. If anything’s signaling the apocalypse, it’s the rate at which people around the world are taking to the streets to protest their governments. Not that protests for democracy mean it’s the end of days—just that we’ve clearly reached a cracking point. Much of the news coverage started with Tunisia, where the demonstrations actually managed to bring down the president. Over the past couple of days, Egypt has been the hot topic. The protests there, as you probably know by now, have taken a turn for the worse. There are indications that the government is clamping down on communications, arresting people in droves, rounding up members of the Muslim Brotherhood, largely thought to be the greatest opposition threat to the current Mubarak regime.
But in addition to Tunisians and Egyptians, people in other parts of the world are reacting to their governments. Here’s a run-down of some of the protests spreading happening around the world.
The mother of all government-toppling protests. Tunisians began protesting last December, but gained more traction in early January with growing reports of police retaliating violently. Though the demonstrations were triggered by the self-immolation of a fruit vendor objecting to widespread government corruption, they have been demonstrative of a far larger phenomenon sweeping the North African country. High unemployment, rising food prices, institutionalized corruption, and the suppression of freedom of speech have been plaguing the country for years, and worsened as former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali approached his 24th year of total rule.
On January 14, as the government scrambled to maintain stability, Ben Ali fled the country. He was replaced by a succession of interim leaders in a matter of hours. After a series of promises of democracy and reform, the current government is itself hanging on by thread. In recent days, Tunisians have taken to the streets again amidst reports that the new government hasn’t been behaving all that differently from the one that came before it. Still, whether or not its revolution will be met with happy results, Tunisia has inspired others to protest in the hopes of being the agents of change in their own countries.
The mass-demonstrations du jour, and without a doubt the most intense thus far, have been taking place in Egypt over the past week or so. There, tens of thousands of people in at least six different cities have been protesting the government of President Hosni Mubarak, which has been in power for some 30 years. The complaints are largely about unemployment, poor living conditions, government neglect and abuse, and the absolute lack of democracy. At least four civilians and two police officers have been killed and many more wounded, including protestors and journalists who have reportedly been beat up and tortured by police and special forces. While President Mubarak has yet to make an official announcement, the latest news coming out of Egypt is that cell phone, landline, and Internet services have been disrupted in an attempt to silence demonstrators. But, “the people are prepared to pay the price for our freedom,” the leader of the opposition has said.
Things have been on the decline for years in Algeria, the large North African country that sits between Morocco to the West, Tunisia and Libya to the East, and Mauritania, Mali, and Niger to the South. The demonstrations began largely in response to the global rise in food prices, but also to protest the rule of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has been in power since 1999. Opposition groups have consistently been calling for the restoration of civil liberties and political freedom, but have been met with little support for the government. The latest reports suggest that the government is considering reshuffling its cabinet in an effort to appease the public, but there’s no telling how the situation will play out.
Things have been relatively quiet in Lebanon recently, but in this latest bout of instability, Lebanese protestors are objecting to what they fear is the formation of an unfair and unrepresentative new government. As I understand it, the demonstrators have largely been Sunni Muslims, opposed to the government being formed by the Shiite group Hezbollah after its members quit the cabinet in mass several weeks ago. It’s difficult to decode the news reports, what with Lebanon being a particular interest to the U.S. and all. But it seems like the demonstrations have been mostly to challenge what many Lebanese believe is not a legitimate way to form government. The extent of the protests aren’t clear, but, unlike those in Tunisia and Egypt, they seem to be driven by political parties as much as by mass public frustration.
Thousands of Yemeni protestors, mostly students, have been protesting in the country’s capital city of Sana’a, calling for the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the region, with some estimates pegging half the population at living below the poverty line. The government, which has been led by Saleh since he was elected in 1999 and reelected several years later, has been accused of corruption. Some Yemenis are apparently concerned with Saleh’s relationship with the U.S., which considers him and his regime to be an ally in the fight against terrorism. To complicate matters even further, a separatist faction located in the South has been calling for secession since the ‘90s. But that’s a whole ‘nother story in itself. Eek!
Amidst all the Tunisian-protests-spreading-throughout-the Arab-world furor, Syria’s relatively mild protests have been included in the trend. There, like throughout much of the region, massive youth unemployment, low wages, and rising food prices have angered a population already living in relatively poor conditions. It’s no wonder that people are angry. But even though President Bashar Al-Assad inherited several decades of autocratic rule from his father, he is not hated as widely as Ben Ali and Mubarak. Unlike those leaders, Al-Assad is considered to have stood up to Western leaders, and that’s a considerable check mark in his favor.
Anti-government protests have been happening in the Eastern European nation of Albania, too. There, the protests are pretty much the result of a battle between the country’s current leaders and the widely supported opposition socialist movement. The opposition alleges that current Prime Minister Sali Berisha’s government is corrupt and ascended to power through rigged elections in 2009. A pretty intense corruption scandal last month led a prominent minister to resign. Three anti-government protestors were shot and killed by authorities last week, and that’s driven even more people to the streets in anger. While Berisha’s government had originally planned a counter-rally, it’s scaled back its response under pressure from the European Union, which the country hopes to join soon.
The situation in Côte d’Ivoire has been rough for a while. In short: President Alassane Ouattara was elected last November, but incumbent Laurent Gbagbo (who, by the way, has been in power for like five years too long) is refusing to cede power. The world pretty much recognizes Ouattara as the country’s leader, but the military is supporting Gbagbo, so it’s pretty tough to swing. The current strategy seems to be an attempt to cripple Gbagbo financially and force him to flee. But, until that happens, everything’s up in the air and the country has two presidents. There have been demonstrations on and off for a couple of months now, but renewed calls for them to resume mean it’s likely that Ivoirians will head back to the streets soon.
Yet another country embroiled in the classic two-presidents scenario. This time, the situation is in Gabon, a coastal Central African country bordered to the West by the Atlantic Ocean, to the North by Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon, and to the East and South by Congo. Current Gabonese President Ali Bongo, son of former president Omar Bongo, was elected in the summer of 2009 and has served as the country’s leader ever since. But now, a year and a half later, opposition leader Andre Mba Obame is declaring himself Gabon’s rightful president. Hundreds protested on his behalf, and clashed violently with police. In a public address, wannabe-president Obame said he was inspired by the power struggles in Côte d’Ivoire and Tunisia.
There’s no telling how things will go, but here’s to wishing our brethren safety, peace, and prosperity.