Back in the beginning of January, the people of Tunisia decided they’d had enough of systemic government corruption and a leadership that had repeatedly demonstrated its contempt for its people. They staged a large-scale protest, with hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets and calling for the resignation of then-president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. When Ben Ali fled the country and his government toppled, people in oppressed countries all over Africa and the Middle East took immediate notice.
That spirit of revolution and the power of ordinary people to affect widespread change was picked up almost immediately by the people of Egypt, who fought an even tougher battle against a firmly-entrenched and powerful leader. The people’s desire for wholesale change was barely dented by vicious violence directed by a corrupt government, its baton-wielding thugs and its unashamedly dishonest state media. It took weeks of mounting protest and the attention of the entire world, but the protests (largely peaceful although there was occasional retaliation by anti-government protesters) eventually achieved their stated goal: the removal of Hosini Mubarak after 30 years of corrupt rule.
Hundreds of Libyans calling for the government’s ouster clashed with security forces early Wednesday in the country’s second-largest city as Egypt-inspired unrest spread to the country long ruled by Moammar Gadhafi. Ashur Shamis, a Libyan opposition activist in London, and witnesses said the protest began Tuesday and lasted until the early hours Wednesday in the port city of Benghazi.
What’s perhaps most interesting about these protests is that the governments don’t seem to learn much from each other’s missteps:
Protests have been banned in Bahrain and the military has been ordered to tighten its grip after the violent removal of anti-government demonstrators, state TV reports. The army would take every measure necessary to preserve security, the interior ministry said. Three people died and 231 were injured when police broke up the main protest camp, said Bahrain’s health minister.
The immediate reaction of these regimes seems to be the use of force to quell dissent. The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t seem to work all that well, and often only serves to bolster the resolve of the people who are in the streets. It seems as though people living in autocratic regimes where police and government officials are all corrupt and organize crime syndicates are often inextricably intertwined with the normal day-to-day business of living aren’t all that afraid of getting beat up if the chance of freedom exists. Sometimes, the consequences are more dire than that:
Bahraini security forces have opened fire on anti-government protesters, witnesses and opposition activists say. The protesters were fired on after they had streamed into the centre of the capital Manama from the funerals of protesters killed in a security crackdown earlier this week. Witnesses said the army fired live rounds and tear gas, and officials said at least 120 people had been hurt.
Two people have been killed and 40 wounded after police shot at a crowd of protesters in Kurdistan, northern Iraq. Hundreds of young men, chanting slogans against corruption and high unemployment, tried to storm the local government offices in Sulaimaniya. There have been a string of protests in cities across Iraq. On Wednesday, three people were killed in clashes with police in the southern city of Kut.
At least three people have been killed during widespread anti-government demonstrations in Yemen. Two people were killed in the southern port city of Aden from gunfire as police moved to disperse protesters, medical officials and witnesses said. In the city of Taiz, one person was killed when a grenade was thrown from a car into a crowd of protesters. And in the capital Sanaa, supporters and opponents of President Ali Abdullah Saleh clashed on the streets.
Iran’s opposition leaders should face trial and be put to death, the country’s hardline lawmakers said Tuesday, a day after clashes between opposition protesters and security forces left one person dead and dozens injured. At an open session of parliament Tuesday, pro-government legislators demanded that opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mahdi Karroubi and former reformist President Mohammad Khatami face be held responsible for the protests.
It’s tempting to cheer unabashedly for the forces of popular reform. After all, these are countries that are ruled by despotic leaders that regularly violate the human rights of their own people, hold corrupt “elections” where the outcome is decided a priori and fail to display anything that looks even slightly like common decency. However, just because those people are being thrown out, that doesn’t mean that the new batch is necessarily going to be any better. Imagine what it would look like, for instance, if the Tea Party in the United States successfully overthrew the government and installed Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachmann as the new leader – sometimes the people are idiots, and find even bigger idiots to lead them.
Most interesting (to me personally) in all of this is the role that the media and especially the internet are playing. The uniform knee-jerk reaction from those in power has been to spread lies over state media about how violence is being started by the protesters, that they are sponsored by foreign interests, that police are being called in to protect the people… the list of falsehoods goes on. Despite attempts to silence reporters (and the particularly disgusting and shocking case of Lara Logan’s assault in Egypt), reports have been flowing out on a regular basis. In an age when anyone with a cell phone and an internet connection can become an instant amateur journalist, controlling the flow of information has become next to impossible. The United States is making noises like it understands that:
China has warned the US not to use calls for internet freedom as an excuse to meddle in other countries’ affairs. The foreign ministry comments came after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced an initiative to help dissidents around the world get past government internet controls. Since Mrs Clinton’s speech, comments about it have been removed from China’s popular Twitter-like microblog sites.
It seems like some autocrats never learn. Whatever the outcome of all of these uprisings, the inability of these despotic states to control the free speech of their citizens will ultimately ensure their downfall. No society that can communicate with the rest of the world can truly be controlled by its rulers.
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