Middle East: what chance another leader falling?

Feb 18, 2011
Venetia Rainey

Briefing: A summary of those countries where, post-Mubarak, people power is gaining strength

A week after it was announced to cheering crowds in Cairo's Tahrir Square that President Mubarak had stood down, Friday February 18 has proved to be one of the most turbulent so far this month, as people across the region have joined the call for change.

Cities across north Africa and the Middle East, from Libya to Yemen and Iran, have seen people power in action - and, in many cases, have witnessed the security forces responding with far greater force than was experienced in Egypt.

As we in the west break for the weekend, and the Middle East prepares for further confrontation on Saturday, this is the situation in five key countries:

BAHRAINWho's in power? King Hamad Al Khalifa,  a Sunni Muslim, has ruled over this tiny kingdom since the death of his father in 1999. His uncle, Khalifa Al Khalifa, has been in government since 1971, making him the world’s longest serving unelected prime minister.

What's the opposition? The Sunni monarchy faces its most serious opposition from the Shia Islamic National Accord Association, who hold 17 out of 40 seats in the elected lower chamber.

What's happening? Thousands of people have been protesting in Bahrain’s capital Manama since February 14, congregating in the city’s symbolic centre, Pearl Square. In the early hours of February 17, police violently forced protestors out of the square, killing at least four and injuring hundreds more. Tens of thousands gathered today for the funerals of Thursday’s victims. Pro-government rallies are also taking place.

What next? Bahrain, unlike Egypt, is not a poor country. Much of the discontent comes down to ethnic tensions between Shiites and Sunnis. As Jonathan Marcus of the BBC points out, the authorities remain determined to crush dissenters. Unlike in Egypt, he says, Bahraini security forces are drawn from other Muslim countries, which means they are less likely to side with the local population. 

ALGERIaWho's in power? President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of the National Liberation Front has been elected for three consecutive terms since an initial disputed election in 1999. He chose to immediately extend the state of emergency law which had been in place since 1992, and relies heavily on the military to support it.

What's the opposition? The two key opposition parties are the National Rally for Democracy and the Movement of Society for Peace, which is aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood. Each won about 10 per cent of votes in the 2007 elections – not enough to stop the parliamentary system being considered to be a rubber-stamp body, working to the NLF’s edicts.

What's happening? Riots broke out in mid-January with people protesting against rising food prices, spiralling rates of unemployment and endemic corruption. Protests have continued sporadically despite being banned. The authorities are braced for major protests on Saturday. Abdelaziz has promised to lift emergency rule by the end of the month as part of a series of placatory measures.

What next? With a history of bloodshed and violence, Algerians are understandably wary of renewed unrest. The process of revolution may be slower in Algeria than elsewhere, says historian Daho Djerbal in the Guardian, because the north African country has a very young new middle class following its near-complete destruction under colonialist rule.

LIBYAWho's in power? Colonel Muammar Gaddafi has ruled Libya ever since a military coup in 1969, and is the Arab world’s longest serving leader. His official title is Leader and Guide of the Revolution, an unelected position attained by virtue of involvement in the revolution.

What's the opposition? Political parties have been banned since 1972 and there is little organised opposition to speak of in the tightly controlled police state.

What's happening? There are varying reports of between 24 and 50 deaths in anti-government protests in provincial cities. In Tripoli, Gaddafi paraded through crowds on Thursday in an effort to prove his authority. However, there were reports today of protesters setting fire to oil drums in the streets of the capital.

What next? Trouble is more likely to come from the eastern cities of Benghazi, al-Bayda and Tobruk, far from Gaddafi's stronghold in Tripoli. As Christopher Walker writes today for The First Post, Benghazi has long been a centre of anti-Gaddafi feeling, while in Tobruk protesters have already toppled a monument symbolising Gaddafi's Green Book and might go further.

YEMEnWho's in power? President Ali Abdullah Saleh has ruled north Yemen for over 30 years, and the whole of Yemen since its unification in 1990. Following protests by thousands of people in the capital, Sana’a, in January, Saleh promised that he would step down at the next elections in 2013 and that he would not put forward his son to replace him.

What's the opposition? Although Yemen is officially a multi-party system, in reality Saleh’s party, the General People’s Congress, exercises almost complete control.

What's happening? Anti-government protests over unemployment, corruption and poverty are into their eighth day. Hundreds of demonstrators, including students, have been violently dealt with in the capital, and the southern port of Aden has seen riots after local government buildings were set alight. Several people were injured earlier today when a grenade was thrown from a passing car into the crowds in Taiz, who numbered tens of thousands.

What next? Saleh’s government’s control barely extends beyond the capital, beyond whose borders lie networks of powerful tribes, many with strong links to terrorist organisations such as al-Qaeda. The crucial distinguishing factors in Yemen are the violence of the protests - often initiated by pro-government demonstrators – and the lack of opposition leadership. Bookies have declared it their favourite for the next country to topple its leader after Tunisia and Egypt.

IRANWho's in power? The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is the highest ranking political and religious leader of Iran. He was appointed for life in 1989, and is also the head of the army, all radio and TV, and the judiciary. Under him is his ally President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The ultra-conservative and outspoken Tehran mayor was elected for a second term in a disputed election in 2009.
What's the opposition? The ‘green’ movement – named after the colours they wear - came about following the disputed 2009 elections, when protestors demanded Ahmadinejad step down from office. Its leaders are Mir-Hossein Mousavi, leader of the main defeated reformist opposition party, and Mehdi Karroubi, leader of another opposition party. Both have been placed under house arrest, and on February 15 hard-line Iranian MPs even called for them to be executed.

What's happening? Thousands of anti-government protestors took to the streets of capital Tehran on February 14, when two protesters were killed and some 1,500 people were reported to have been detained. Clashes broke out again at a funeral for one of the dead on February 16. Opposition leaders Mousavi and Karroubi have been reported missing amid government calls for their execution.

What next? Ahmadinejad has put the protests down to foreign interference, and has said that they are doomed to failure, whilst even a Facebook group dedicated to the protests has said that Iranian authorities will never allow an encampment like that seen in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The Revolutionary Guard is a powerful body prepared to use brute force to crush resistance. Ahmadinejad can also call on the young thugs of the basiji militia to do his bidding. Another opposition group, Green Path of Hope, has called for protests on Sunday.

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