As protests swell from Yemen to Egypt, Middle East faces uncertainty

Tens of thousands of Yemenis demanded the president step down in nationwide protests Thursday, taking inspiration from the popular revolt in Tunisia and vowing to continue until their U.S.-backed government falls.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 28, 2011; 6:21 AM

A wave of political unrest threatening Middle Eastern governments grew ominously larger Thursday as new protests shook impoverished Yemen and Egyptian authorities braced for massive anti-government demonstrations set to begin Friday.

The fresh turbulence deepened fears of a prolonged period of chaos and uncertainty in the region while raising new questions about the viability of autocratic governments that have been stalwart allies of the United States for more than a generation.

In Egypt, the government shut down access to the Internet and cell phones and disabled text-messaging services in a bid to stifle further protests. Meanwhile, pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei returned to the country to join the protests and rally the opposition.

The tumult in Yemen, where more than 10,000 people took to the streets of the capital, Sanaa, on Thursday, added a troubling new dimension to the regional unrest that began nearly two months ago in Tunisia. Yemen, one of the poorest and most heavily armed countries in the Middle East, is home to multiple separatist movements and has its own particularly virulent branch of al-Qaeda.

"Yemen is a different game," said Khairi Abaza, a Middle East expert and a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. "If things go out of hand in Yemen, you have many players who will be waiting to try to affect the outcome, from al-Qaeda to Iran."

While the Obama administration continued to show symbolic support for the protesters' pro-democracy aspirations, administration officials and security experts acknowledged a deepening uncertainty about how the protest movement will play out as it reshapes and possibly upends governments and entire societies from Lebanon to North Africa.

With few exceptions, the countries have been under autocratic rule for decades, and are virtually devoid of the traditions, experience and political infrastructure on which to build stable new governments.

The only certainty, experts said, is uncertainty - an extended and potentially dangerous period of instability that is probably just beginning.

"What happened in Tunisia is completely unprecedented in the Arab world," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who served as special assistant on the Middle East and South Asia to three presidents. "We've never had a dictator toppled by the street. As a consequence, there is no safety net, no organized opposition ready to move in. . . . No one has a clue what is going to emerge in some of these places."

Riedel said the uncertainty, combined with speed of the change underway, presents the Obama administration with an array of difficult choices as it seeks to show support for democratic expression while working to preserve stability and prevent violence. Historically, U.S. governments "have never gotten these things right," he said.

President Obama on Thursday issued a direct appeal to Egyptian authorities to address protesters' concerns, saying Egyptians should have "mechanisms to express legitimate grievances." But he also called on all sides to avoid violence and he praised the country's octogenarian president, Hosni Mubarak, as an ally who has been "helpful on a range of issues in the Middle East."

"But I've always said to him [that] making sure they are moving forward on reform - economic reform, political reform - is absolutely critical to the long-term well-being of Egypt," Obama said. "My main hope right now is that violence is not the answer in solving these problems in Egypt. The government has to be careful about not resorting to violence, and the people in the streets have to be careful about not resorting to violence."

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