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A new sense of populist empowerment grips the Middle East

Mourners pray in Manama, Bahrain, during the funeral for Fadhel Salman al-Matrook, who was killed Tuesday when police tried to stop a funeral march for another Bahraini killed in demonstrations. Thousands are seeking sweeping political reforms.
Mourners pray in Manama, Bahrain, during the funeral for Fadhel Salman al-Matrook, who was killed Tuesday when police tried to stop a funeral march for another Bahraini killed in demonstrations. Thousands are seeking sweeping political reforms. (Hasan Jamali)

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 17, 2011

SANAA, YEMEN - Across the Middle East, protesters clashed with pro-government mobs and security forces Wednesday and Thursday, the latest sign that the tools of repression that leaders in the region have relied on for years are now, instead, propelling more people to the streets.

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In Bahrain, hundreds of police officers broke up a protest that had brought thousands to the heart of the country's financial district to demand sweeping political reforms. At least two people were reported killed in the predawn raid Thursday, just days after two protesters were killed in another crackdown by security forces.

This time, authorities surrounded a makeshift encampment in Manama, the Bahraini capital, before firing tear gas and ammunition to clear protesters. They acted hours after some demonstrators called for the ouster of Bahrain's prime minister, a member of the ruling family who has served for nearly 40 years, and even an end to the monarchy.

In Libya, after authorities put down a small protest Tuesday, they were confronted with uprisings in three cities Wednesday. And in Iran, skirmishes broke out between critics and supporters of the government, a day after hard-liners called for the execution of two opposition leaders.

Hundreds of Yemenis demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh also took to the streets for a sixth straight day, with protests spreading across three cities. In the southern city of Aden, two protesters were reported killed and eight injured in clashes with security forces, according to local news reports. In retaliation, protesters raided a local government council building and burned four vehicles, witnesses said.

"The fear factor has been broken," declared Mohammed Abu Lahoum, a top ruling party member and influential tribal leader who said Yemen's regime needs to learn a lesson from the uprisings and make compromises to satisfy the people.

Governments have had some success in quelling the recent wave of demonstrators, most notably in Iran, where a heavy-handed response Monday appears to have kept many protesters home, at least for now.

But as populist rebellions spread across the Middle East, many old formulas of suppressing them are faltering, with protesters relentlessly defying their regimes in what amounts to a collective psychological realignment in the region.

Autocrats and monarchs across the Arab world have offered political concessions, including pledges to step down from power, to prevent chaos. But they have only emboldened the streets. They have dispatched armed mobs and security forces to injure, arrest, even kill pro-democracy activists. But the next day, their critics return in even greater numbers, clamoring for action.

"We will not stop protesting until the corrupt regime changes," said Mohammed Ahmed, a union leader in Aden.

The new sense of empowerment has grown dramatically since Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down Friday. Activists have declared that if Egyptians could overthrow Mubarak, widely seen as the region's most influential and most stubborn autocrat, they could also oust their own unpopular governments. Others drew confidence from the refusal of the armies in Egypt and Tunisia to become tools of government repression, as well as from individual acts of courage.

At the same time, protesters are reassured by the Obama administration's public support for some of the pro-democracy movements. Many said they were re-energized by the U.S. decision not to prop up Mubarak's regime, despite his importance to U.S. strategic interests in the region.


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