The Middle East protest movements: each with a story, all with uncertainty
The Middle East protest movements: each with a story, all with uncertainty

Dr. Jonathan Schanzer [Vice President of Research, Foundation for Defense of Democracies]:

“Across the Middle East, protest movements are taking hold. While each draws inspiration from the examples of Egypt and Tunisia, each country has a story of its own.

In Iran, for example, the world may be witnessing a repeat of the demonstrations that rocked the Islamic Republic in the aftermath of the rigged elections of June 12, 2009. The prospect of another four years under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad drew hundreds of thousands of angry Iranians to protest in the streets. To the chagrin of the protestors — and democracy advocates worldwide — President Obama did little to support the nascent Green Movement, emboldening the Iranian regime to mount a brutal crackdown on them.

The return of the Green Movement has been anticipated for months. After nearly two years of dormancy, the people of Iran are drawing courage from the Egyptians and again coming out to challenge the regime. Will Iran’s dissidents find support in the West this time? And can they withstand brutal countermeasures from the regime?

Across the Persian Gulf, the tiny archipelago of Bahrain is seething. As it has for decades, the majority Shi’ite population — which constitutes some 70 percent of the country’s 700,000 residents — is demanding its rights. The protests that began with calls for greater representation have evolved into brash calls to topple the Sunni monarch, King Hamad bin Khalifa. This change in tone unquestionably came in mid-February, after Bahraini forces fired on the peaceful protestors in the capital city of Manama.

For now, Hamad’s insurance is Washington. The U.S. has significant interests in Bahrain: namely, a base that is home to the Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Washington is understandably concerned that King Hamad’s successor might not be as hospitable. If a Shi’ite government gains power in Bahrain, U.S. officials fear it could become an Iranian proxy.

Another strategic ally under fire is Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh has been at the helm for 32 years, and is now fighting for his political life. Saleh is not unfamiliar with unrest in the country’s south, where a secessionist movement has sought since 1994 to break from the north. But now, after weeks of protest, Saleh’s tribal allies in the North have begun to defect, further weakening his base. Violence has erupted across the country, casting doubt on Saleh’s ability to hold on.

But, as with King Hamad in Bahrain, the U.S. cannot easily allow Saleh to go. Washington enjoys a quiet and important counterterrorism partnership with Yemen, which has helped the United States combat al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula, the most active of the terror network’s affiliates.

There is also the question as to who would replace Saleh. The long-time leader has kept Yemen stable by placating its influential tribal patriarchs and paying them patronage. Thus, world leaders view him as an indispensible guarantor of stability, albeit an imperfect one.

Then there is Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. Rightly dubbed the “Mad Clown of Tripoli” by former President Ronald Reagan, Gaddafi has been in power for 42 years, and he has now dragged his country into civil war.

The people of Libya first began their revolt in Benghazi, the country’s second largest city, near the Egyptian border in the northeastern corner of the country. This was particularly significant because the East has long chafed under Gaddafi’s rule. Apart from regional and tribal distinctions, Benghazi is also the country’s political weathervane. From student protests to Islamist insurrections, Benghazi has always been at the center of trouble for Gaddafi’s regime. When protests spread to the countryside and to Tripoli, the regime has fired upon civilians from land and air.

While most world leaders would likely welcome the fall of Gaddafi, the prospect still confronts them with a dilemma: who would maintain stability after he is gone? After four decades of one-man rule, the country has no other political institutions, and could quickly descend into a failed state if the regime collapses.

With growing pockets of the country in the hands of anti-regime forces, Libya has now spiraled into a full-scale civil war. Change is on the horizon, but of what kind?

In contrast to Gaddafi, among the more friendly dictators under duress is King Abdullah II of Jordan. Protests led by the Islamic Action Front, the Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, are agitating for change. For now, demonstrations have been largely peaceful, save one in which eight people were injured by a pro-monarchy mob wielding weapons. But a month’s worth of sporadic unrest has hamstrung the young monarch. He will likely be forced to make changes to the constitution, and allow for greater representation. On the surface, this is a good thing. However, true democracy could bring challenges to the unpopular peace with Israel, trade agreements with the West, and even the country’s nominally secular culture.

Of course, Jordan’s system of government is tipped in the King’s favor; he can veto any parliamentary initiative. But how long can that power last, and how long will the country’s military support a monarch who defies the will of the people?

As new protest movements erupt from Morocco and Mauritania (and maybe Saudi Arabia), it is important to remember that the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions are not yet over. No one yet knows what they will yield.

The complexions of these protests movements are all disparate, but their outcomes are similarly unpredictable. Some may yield democracy. Others may bring new dictators to power. Still others may produce Islamist polities. And these distinctions are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, it is not uncommon to see hybrids that share two of these traits (Islamist dictatorships and Islamist democracies).

In the Middle East, states can also go through years of flux, before reaching stability. Accordingly, the predictions of liberal democracy sweeping the region may be premature.”

This article was prepared for publication by Yuriy Vilner, an associate editor for JURIST’s professional commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to him at

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