WAVES OF DEMONSTRATIONS have electrified the Middle East over the past number of weeks – all triggered by a single, desperate act by a Tunisian street vendor who set himself alight in protest to the police confiscating his wares.
Following the death of 26-year-old Mohammed Bouazizi, street riots broke out across the country as thousands became involved in an unprecedented backlash against governmental oppression and poverty – in a country widely regarded as one of the most stable in the Middle East.
The spirit of Tunisia’s “Jasmine revolution” soon broke past the country’s boundaries and swept through neighboring Arab states. Citizens from Egypt to Yemen, in countries poor and wealthy, took to the streets to demand change.
As it stands today, Tunisia’s former president of 23 years, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, has fled his native country for Saudi Arabia; the Jordanian prime minister has been replaced; and Egypt’s president of 30 years, Hosni Mubarak, has vowed not to contest the next election – a promise seen as too little too late by many Egyptians who continue to demand he leaves the country immediately.
The UN has declared that the number of fatalities in Egypt over the past week has risen to as many as 300; likewise, it says that 200 have been killed and more than 500 wounded as a result of the Tunisian uprising.
Meanwhile, the protests show no sign of abating: in Lebanon demonstrations have taken place after a Hezbollah-backed politician was asked to form the country’s new government.
In Syria, citizens are organising campaigns on Facebook and Twitter that call for a “day of rage” in Damascus later this week – just as Egyptian and Tunisian protesters used social networking site to organise crowds.
In Yemen - one of the poorest countries in the Middle East – President Ali Abdullah Saleh has tried to placate furious demonstrators by vowing not to run for office again. This week, he also increased wages, reduced income tax and extended social security coverage - and, in a seeming move to appease the younger generation, announced a job creation fund for university graduates and canceled university tuition fees for the rest of the year.
Other protests have broken out in Sudan, Algeria and Saudi Arabia.
The protests have gained both support and opposition; some onlookers have passionately championed the calls for democracy from an entirely popular movement - something previously unseen in the region, where power changes have traditionally been realised through foreign interference or coups. However, others are voicing wariness over the possibility of extremists hijacking control in any ensuing power vacuum.
Whatever the ultimate outcome, commentators are united in one view: the Middle Eastern demonstrations are history in the making.