Wave of protests now touches nearly all of Arab world

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 4, 2011 

CAIRO — From North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, virtually no Arab country remained untouched Friday by the two-month wave of revolts that's overthrown two heads of state and left many other leaders teetering or rolling out pre-emptive reforms.

As fighting raged in Libya over the fate of Moammar Gadhafi, hundreds of thousands of protesters turned out elsewhere to demand greater political freedoms.

In Yemen, government forces killed as many as four protesters. In Iraq, thousands trekked to demonstrations on foot after the government banned vehicular traffic. Even the closed-off kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the largest oil producer in the world, saw modest demonstrations.

In Egypt, the day began in jubilation when the country's new prime minister, Essam Sharaf, made a surprise appearance at Tahrir Square. Only hours later, however, police in Alexandria opened fire as hundreds of protesters stormed a building that belonged to the hated State Security Agency. Three people were injured, news services reported.

Dismantling the internal security police remains one of the unmet demands of the protesters whose days of street demonstrations culminated in the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11.

The appointment of Sharaf on Thursday met another demand: the naming of a civilian with few ties to Mubarak to the top government post to help guide the country to democracy. Sharaf replaced Ahmed Shafiq, a retired general whom Mubarak had named prime minister in the final days of his regime.

“I’m here because I get my legitimacy from you,” Sharaf told the cheering throngs Friday.

But the events in Alexandria showed how fragile Egypt's calm remains. Video footage broadcast by the Arab satellite channel Al Jazeera showed demonstrators in the state security building examining files, images that were hailed on Twitter as showing that the work of the revolt was still to be done.

In every country, the protesters have similar complaints: rampant corruption and lack of political space. They’ve grown weary of aloof, mostly U.S.-allied rulers who rely on dreaded internal security forces to crush any sign of rebellion. In some there are specific added causes: In Bahrain, it's sectarian discrimination; in Iraq, lack of basic services.

In Yemen's Amran province, a main base for Shiite Muslim rebels who are calling for the ouster of U.S.-allied President Ali Abdullah Saleh, soldiers opened fire on protesters, killing as many as four people and wounding at least seven, according to news reports. Thousands _ including hundreds of women who joined the demonstrations for the first time _ also rallied in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, calling for Saleh to step down.

In the southern port city of Aden, clerics spoke against the regime in their Friday sermons and protesters carried coffins in remembrance of three people killed last week, news services reported.

In Iraq, the government of Nouri al Maliki imposed a vehicle ban to prevent carloads of protesters from descending on Baghdad. Defiant protesters simply stayed overnight at relatives’ houses near the main square or made long journeys by foot to participate in what they’d dubbed the “Friday of Integrity.”

Determined not to clash with security forces, some Iraqis handed flowers to the riot police. While a minority is calling for the fall of Maliki’s regime, most Iraqi protesters seemed eager just for an audience to listen to their complaints of rampant graft, unemployment and the lack of electricity and clean water.

“We’re not here to fight those security forces, because we know they have orders to follow,” said Munir Moussa, 45, who's unemployed. “We’re here only to ask for our rights, and we want the entire world to know that.”

The prime minister has pledged to address the main demands within 100 days, a timetable now monitored closely on Facebook pages set up by Iraqi college students.

In Manama, Bahrain, as many as 100,000 people marched toward Pearl Square, the scene of deadly clashes between protesters and the security forces of the al Khalifas, the Sunni Muslim royal family that rules Bahrain’s majority-Shiite population.

There was no violence Friday, but the power of news coverage, which has helped drive the spread of the revolts from country to country, was clear. Thousands of protesters gathered outside the Ministry of Information to issue a challenge to state television, which typically makes no mention of the anti-government uprising.

“Show us live!” the crowds chanted. “Show us live!”

(Nancy A. Youssef in Benghazi, Libya, McClatchy special correspondent Laith Hammoudi in Baghdad and a special correspondent in Bahrain whose identity is undisclosed for security reasons contributed to this article.)

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