Upheaval in Arab world


Of all the disturbing images of Egypt broadcast around the world recently this was one of the most shocking – an unarmed protester killed in cold blood.

Mohamed Atef ducks as police open fire on unruly protesters in northern Sinai. He seems to be trying to flee but then collapses in his tracks.

Friends rush over to help but it’s too late – he has been struck in the head. And so he becomes the umpteenth victim of the police who have helped keep President Hosni Mubarak in power for almost 30 years.

After a week of unrest in Egypt the official death toll stood at more than 100 but hopes for a better future mounted. And on Cairo’s Tahrir Square the cry went up: “Mubarak, your plane is waiting!”

Meanwhile the international community is following events with growing unease. What’s behind the current turmoil in Arab countries and how does it affect the rest of the world?

First spark: the vegetable vendor

It all began with an impoverished vegetable vendor, Mohamed Bouaziz, in Tunisia.

The country’s dictatorship fell three weeks ago, sending a spark into the smouldering powderkeg that is Egypt.

The unrest that forced neighbouring Tunisia’s President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee started after Bouaziz (26) set himself alight in December as a sign of protest.

Suffering and police bullying – especially when they confiscated his vegetable cart – had broken him. He died of his burns early in January – a martyr to students and the unemployed who began to protest against poor living conditions.

That the wave of protests there could lead to the downfall of an autocrat stunned many Arabs elsewhere – and then moved them to action.

What’s happening in the Arab world?

The only regions where democracy probably fares worse than in Africa are the Middle East and the Arab countries, says Professor Hussein Solomon of Free State University’s political science department.

President Mubarak, for example, has been in power for three decades and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafifor more than four. They’re kept in power by state security – some may call it stability but it’s really repression, Professor Solomon says.

China, though also not democratic, does try to look after the welfare of its people.

The problem with the Arab leaders currently facing protests is that some of them have pillaged their countries and amassed property for personal gain.

“Now we see something called contagion,” he says. “People have begun to see these emperors have no clothes. After Tunisia people started thinking, ‘Maybe these guys aren’t invincible’.”

For a breakdown of the issues behind the turmoil, what effect it will have on the rest of the world and the political profiles of Egypt and Tunisia’s Arab neighbours, see YOU’s 10 February issue.

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