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Pressure for change builds across Arab world

By Marc Fisher and Liz Sly
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 28, 2011; 1:33 AM

TUNIS - Tunisia, whose revolution convulsed the Arab world, ousted its second leader in less than two months Sunday, as the euphoria triggered by the uprising in January began to give way to the realization that achieving meaningful reforms may prove tougher than toppling dictators.

Tunisian Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannoushi announced in a televised address Sunday that he was stepping down after days of violent clashes between police and protesters in the capital, Tunis, that left three demonstrators dead.

Ghannoushi had taken charge after mass demonstrations forced the resignation of longtime dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, whose flight into exile Jan. 14 inspired copycat revolts in Egypt and Libya and protest movements in Bahrain, Yemen, Algeria, Jordan and Iraq.

But Tunisians, complaining that the prime minister was too close to the old regime and lacked commitment to the reforms he had promised, had taken to the streets again, this time more rowdily, hurling rocks at shops as well as police as they vented their frustration at the slow pace of change.

The revolutionary fervor unleashed across the region in the wake of Tunisia's revolt shows no sign of abating, and on Sunday it spread to two countries in the oil-rich Persian Gulf that had hitherto seemed relatively immune to the turmoil elsewhere.

In the tightly controlled kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a group of 119 academics and activists called for sweeping political reforms in a statement posted on Saudi Web sites. On Twitter and Facebook, activists called for demonstrations March 11 and 20 to demand reforms, echoing the "Day of Rage" dates set by activists elsewhere in the region that have in some places triggered full-scale uprisings.

The statement by the academics did not call for the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy or challenge the rule of the ailing and aging King Abdullah, whose promises to reform the highly restrictive country have stalled amid squabbles over who among his relatives should succeed him.

But it did call for the replacement of the current system with a constitutional monarchy that would dramatically reduce the hereditary powers of the royal family, raising the specter of unrest spreading to the world's largest oil producer.

And in placid Oman, a sleepy, palm-fringed beach nation on the Arabian Sea where the sultan has long been regarded as one of the region's more benevolent rulers, two people were killed in clashes between police and demonstrators in the town of Sohar, 120 miles northwest of the capital, Muscat. Oman's state-run news agency said protesters demanding political reforms, jobs and higher wages set fire to the governor's residence and burned a police station, houses and cars.

Even in Lebanon, which has no government to rebel against because of disputes among the country's feuding political factions, demonstrators took to the streets to demand the overthrow of the sectarian system that has defined and divided the volatile country for seven decades.

Yet even as the tumult spreads and intensifies, some of the heady optimism that accompanied the initial uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt is starting to fade.

Tensions are building in the tiny island nation of Bahrain, where two weeks of protests originally aimed not at overturning the regime but at securing constitutional reforms have drawn only trifling concessions from King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.

In a sign that attitudes there may be hardening, about 2,000 protesters staged an angry march from the Pearl Square roundabout in the city's center to the diplomatic district, rejecting negotiations with the government and calling for the resignation of the cabinet. Some chanted, "Down, down, Khalifa!" in reference to the king.

The return of a hard-line leader of Bahrain's long-oppressed Shiite majority, who was greeted with fireworks by his supporters at the roundabout Saturday, may also signify an escalation of the protest campaign there.

Hassan Mushaima, leader of the banned Haq party, hinted in an address to the crowd that he would lead the opposition in a more overtly religious direction, suggesting that Bahrain's majority Shiites were willing to die for the sake of reforming the minority Sunni regime.

"If not for the blood of the martyrs, we would not have reached this stage," Mushaima said, referring to protesters who died in clashes with the army this month. "We are all ready to sacrifice more and more to gain our demands."

Governments across the region have scrambled to offer concessions to their citizens in the form of pay increases, new social programs and even outright cash gifts. In Iraq on Sunday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki gave the members of his two-month-old cabinet 100 days to respond to demands for better governance and services or risk being replaced, following violent protests there Friday in which 29 people died.

But most of those gestures fall far short of the genuine changes that Arab citizens have long coveted but have only recently begun to demand.

The departure of a second Tunisian leader in as many months is likely to intensify pressure for speedier reform elsewhere, predicted Wael Nawara, a leader of the opposition Ghad Party in Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak's resignation in the face of mass popular protests this month has been followed by building tensions between the military and activists.

Small groups of demonstrators remain camped in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the mass uprising that ousted Mubarak, and suspicions are growing among many who participated in the revolt that the military leaders now in charge of running the country are not sincere about reforms.

"Getting rid of the dictator was symbolic, but the war goes on and people are getting very impatient," Nawara said, predicting calls for the resignation of Egypt's new prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, a former minister of aviation in Mubarak's government.

"Mr. Shafiq will have to go, and I'm sure Ghannoushi can teach him a lesson about how to write his resignation letter," he said.

In his departing address, Ghannoushi told Tunisians he hoped his resignation would herald an end to the protests that have shut down the country's economy and paralyzed the capital for more than two months.

But several members of parliament and others from newly formed political parties warned that the move was more likely to encourage agitators to think that by ratcheting up their street actions they could bring down the remaining members of the Ben Ali government.

Sly reported from Cairo. Michael Birnbaum in Manama, Bahrain, and Stephanie McCrummen in Baghdad also contributed to this report.

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