WASHINGTON – In the three short weeks since a poor, unlicensed Tunisian fruit-seller set himself on fire after police seized his wares, protests have ousted his country’s longtime authoritarian ruler and confronted Egypt’s octogenarian president with the greatest challenge of his 30 years in power.
Thousands of Yemenis inspired by Mohamed Bouazizi’s death in Tunisia demanded an end to their ruling strongman’s 32-year reign Thursday, and political ferment has been growing in Jordan as well as energy-rich Algeria and Moammar Gadhafi’s Libya.
Tunisian flags and slogans have appeared at protests in Egypt, Yemen and elsewhere, and Tunisians are offering advice to protesters in other countries via Facebook and Twitter such as carrying goggles and scarves to fend off tear gas.
Mass protests have been called in Egypt, Yemen and Jordan today. Meanwhile, Lebanon appears to be headed into a new ethnic and religious upheaval.
Here are brief descriptions of the tumultuous events and the underlying causes.
Since Tuesday, Egyptians have marched in the largest grass-roots anti-regime demonstrations since 1977 riots over bread prices. There’s no single organizer, and activists, students, and ordinary people have coordinated over cellular telephones, the Internet and social networking sites.
U.S.-allied President Hosni Mubarak, who’s ruled since 1981 and is expected to try to pass the office to his son, Gamal, has received billions of dollars in U.S. military and civilian aid.
Egyptians are fed up with rampant corruption, repression, joblessness and rising prices – issues raised in chants and on homemade signs.
Tens of thousands of people marched Thursday in the capital, Sanaa, demanding an end to the 32-year rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who’s been accused of corruption, nepotism and human rights abuses in one of the Arab world’s poorest countries.
Saleh also has angered Yemenis by allowing U.S. drone strikes on suspected al-Qaida targets inside Yemen in exchange for a dramatic increase in U.S. counterterrorism aid.
Tunisia’s spontaneous popular uprising, which ousted authoritarian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, gave hope to pro-democracy activists in a region led by intractable monarchs, dictators and dynasties.
However, Tunisians continue to protest daily in hopes of creating an interim government without any Ben Ali-era figures.
It remains to be seen whether Tunisians will achieve one of their main goals: hauling Ben Ali back from exile for a public reckoning of his regime’s alleged abuses.
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s military-backed government has been making major international grain purchases in an apparent bid to avoid higher prices in coming weeks.
That’s because as the turmoil raged in Tunisia, violent protests over government-ordered price increases for flour and other basic foods roiled Algeria. Bouteflika enacted some price reductions, but many experts are predicting further unrest.
Algeria is the world’s ninth-largest crude oil producer, but poverty and corruption are rampant. The country remains under a state of emergency imposed in 1992, when the army seized power and canceled elections that would have brought an Islamic fundamentalist party to power and igniting a civil war in which an estimated 200,000 people died.
Lebanon’s crisis differs from the unrest rocking other Arab countries, rooted in religious sectarianism more than poverty and political repression, and involving Iran and Syria, countries long at odds with Washington.
Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim militia movement that’s gained power in recent years with Iranian and Syrian backing, pulled out of the Cabinet on Jan. 12, bringing down the government of U.S. ally Saad Hariri, a Sunni Muslim.
Hezbollah’s goal, analysts say, is to halt Lebanese cooperation with a U.N. tribunal investigating the 2005 murder of Rafiq Hariri, Saad’s father. The tribunal is soon expected to name Hezbollah figures in the murder.