After Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia, what comes next?
Pro-democracy warriors in Middle Eastern countries such as Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia push through barriers of fear only to find a constellation of needs, demands, and problems on the other side.
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"Part of this moving forward is, 'Where are we, really, now?'" asks James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute (AAI) and author of "Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us, and Why It Matters." "If all that happened was Ben Ali is gone, the party is dissolved, and the military is in control of Tunisia; or Mubarak is gone, his party is hollowed out a bit, but the military is still in control – then maybe nothing happened at all."Skip to next paragraph
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The "Shoe-Thrower's Index" of Arab unrest, published by The Economist in February, suggests that the spread of such upheavals may have been inevitable. It weighted several factors such as prevalence of youth, years of unchanged government, and corruption and lack of democracy indices. Top of the list for "potential for unrest" was Yemen – which scored almost 90 out of 100. Libya was next with 70, Egypt slightly lower in a tie with Syria and Iraq.
People have taken to the streets to demand a say in government, for an end to state repression, and for jobs and improved living conditions that have left jobless up to one-quarter of the region's youth – a bubble of 15-to-29-year-olds that, by one count, at 100 million strong, makes up a third of the Arab population.
Those youths have been at the forefront of the fight for change, battling Egyptian police, forcing the fall of Libya's second city, Benghazi – even providing the spark for all these protests when a Tunisian college graduate set himself ablaze in mid-December after being harassed by the police over his vegetable cart.
But faced now with the most significant and abrupt transformation since Arab borders were drawn by victorious European powers after World War I, the new revolutionaries of the Middle East are pushing through the barrier of fear only to find a diverse constellation of needs, demands, and problems on the other side.
For example, episodes of continued unrest in Tunisia, the very nation that inspired the chain reaction of protests, show the enormity of what still needs to be done, says Sadok Belaid, a veteran law professor in Tunis, the capital.
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"These young people are demanding things that are very simple, and I think very reasonable," says Mr. Belaid. Declaring that the interim government "will accede to the will of the people" in all matters, and speed toward an assembly, may ease opposition.
The election of a general assembly representing the whole country – not just a few political parties – to draft a new constitution is the top priority, he adds, followed by the overhaul of economic policy to address "urgent needs."
But applying such changes in Tunisia is already proving difficult.
Egypt might have an easier time forging democratic success, with its history of an organized opposition – despite tough crackdowns against the largest, the Muslim Brotherhood, among others – and an active civil society and institutions.
In Libya, by contrast, Muammar Qaddafi's repressive rule has erased any vestige of public opposition and blocked the formation of civil society groups or institutions. And yet popular committees and even military officers that defected to the antiregime side in eastern Libya very quickly set about preventing a power vacuum by engaging in self-rule.
In Bahrain, sectarian issues play a role amid the complaints against the monarchy, as the majority Shiites demand more rights from minority Sunni rulers.
The equation is different yet again in grindingly poor Yemen, where key demands center on jobs and better living conditions.