A region in turmoil: How far will the unrest spread?
Cahal Milmo is the chief reporter of The Independent and has been with the paper since 2000. He was born in London and previously worked at the Press Association news agency. He has reported on assignment at home and abroad, including Rwanda, Sudan and Burkina Faso, the phone hacking scandal and the London Olympics. In his spare time he is a keen runner and cyclist, and keeps an allotment.
Saturday 29 January 2011
King Mohammed VI
Notionally a constitutional monarchy, the Moroccan government has been accused of using the courts to imprison peaceful opponents. King Mohammed VI retains the power to dissolve parliament and dismiss or appoint the prime minister.
Criticising the monarchy or Islam is still punishable by law, but the private press has had some success in breaking taboos and investigating government corruption. There has been progress under Prime Minister Abbas El Fassi, who took office in 2007, but Morocco still endures high unemployment rates, especially among its younger population.
Prime Minister Ghannouchi
Few had suspected such a swift fall from grace for President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who on 14 January caved in to the massive protests and fled the North African nation he had ruled over with an iron fist for 23 years.
Accused over his decades in power of suppressing the opposition, censoring the media and detaining dissidents, Mr Ben Ali had nonetheless managed to maintain his stranglehold on power by providing a reasonable quality of life for citizens. But in recent years inflation and unemployment have hit the country hard, and people have baulked at seeing Mr Ben Ali, his reviled wife and extended family appearing to get wealthier and buy up holiday homes by the sea, while the people languished in poverty. It took the self-immolation of one desperate unemployed university graduate in December last year to set off a chain of protests. News of the dissent spread through Twitter and Facebook, culminating in the huge protests that forced Mr Ben Ali from power earlier this month. Since the popular uprising, the hastily cobbled-together government led by Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi has struggled to maintain law and order, with protesters insisting that the cabinet be purged of any remnants of Mr Ben Ali’s regime.
It remains to be seen if Tunisia will emerge as the Middle East’s second full democracy – a label currently only applied to Israel – with no date set yet for elections.
President Michel Suleiman
For once in the fragile world of Middle Eastern politics, Lebanon is not centre stage. The country is still reeling from the 2005 assassination of its former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was killed in a car bomb attack. The coalition government in Beirut collapsed last week when a UN report, which is expected to assert that the Iran- and Syria-backed Hezbollah had a hand in Hariri’s murder, was handed to prosecutors in Lebanon and the “Party of God” abandoned the administration.
The party is already back, however, after President Michel Suleiman appointed the Hezbollah-backed Najib Mikati as the new head of his government, in what, by Middle East standards, is a highly democratic state. Nonetheless, such is the fear of Hezbollah in Israel that the immediate threat to stability in Lebanon may well come from Tel Aviv, rather than riots from a discontent population.
King Abdullah II
Power lies squarely in the hands of King Abdullah II, who inherited an absolute monarchy from his father, who ruled for 46 years before his death in 1999. Promises of political reform are yet to materialise, with the King wielding the power to appoint ministers, dismiss parliament and rule by decree.
Jordan languished in the bottom quarter of the 2010 Democracy Index, and discontent is growing. Sporadic protests over inflation and unemployment – which is estimated at between 12 and 25 per cent – broke out across the country after the Tunisian unrest, and an Islamist opposition leader stoked the flames by calling for Jordanians to be granted the right to elect their leaders.
With strong support from the Bedouin-dominated military and financial backing from their allies in Washington, King Abdullah looks to be safe for the time being. The Prime Minister has announced a multi-million-pound food and fuel subsidy package, and the King has in recent days made further promise of reform, even meeting with the Jordanian arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, considered the largest opposition group in the kingdom. The Muslim Brotherhood has, however, called for a fresh round of demonstrations.
President Bashar al-Assad
President Bashar al-Assad has been in power since 2000, succeeding his father and continuing his authoritarian rule with all opposition parties banned, the media strictly controlled and any dissenting voices harshly dealt with.
Syria has been controlled by the Baath Party since it took power in 1963, and those who speak out against the government are frequently jailed on charges of “weakening national morale”. Emergency rule remains in effect in Syria, and authorities are consistently accused of violating civilian rights, arresting activists, detaining bloggers and restricting freedom to travel.
There are conditions for discontent: unemployment is between 10 and 25 per cent, and the population is frustrated at the widening gap between the rich and the poor. Apparently unnerved by the protests in Tunisia, the authorities recently sharply raised a heating oil allowance for public workers, reversing a policy of slashing subsidies in the face of decades of economic stagnation. Then, on Wednesday, users reported that programmes they used to access Facebook Chat had apparently been blocked in what looked like a move to curtail any online protest movement. Syrian media barely reported the overthrow of Tunisia’s Mr Ben Ali.
President Jalal Talabani
For decades Saddam Hussein held the dubious accolade of being the region’s most notorious dictator. Since US-led forces ejected him from power 2003, Iraq has seen a messy transition towards democracy, but the power-sharing government has struggled to maintain order over insurgents and militia groups and many Iraqis are worried about what will happen when all the remaining US forces leave by the end of the year.
Elections in March last year proved inconclusive, leading to months of uncertainty. Finally, a power-sharing deal was brokered in November, with veteran Kurd leader Jalal Talabani named as President for a third term.
King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz
Absolute monarch King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz has ruled the desert kingdom since 2005, the latest in a long line of royals in charge. Although the 87-year-old is in ill-health and runs a strict authoritarian state, the distribution of oil wealth largely keeps the populace happy. The royals’ biggest challenge is Islamist extremist groups, and the monarchy cracks down hard on any challenges to their authority. Saudi Arabia, along with other oil-rich Gulf states such as Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, are generally less susceptible to Tunisian-style uprisings because the population benefit from the spoils of natural resources.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Yemen last week to demand an end to the three-decade rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The poorest country in the Middle East and a largely tribal society, Yemen has more problems than most. It has emerged as a new base for al-Qa’ida militants driven out of their traditional sanctuaries on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Yemen is also battling a secessionist movement in the south, an on-off rebellion in the north, and grinding poverty. Its oil reserves, which make up 70 percent of the government’s revenue, are dwindling and the nation relies on US aid. Nearly half of all Yemenis live below the poverty line and unemployment is at least 35 per cent.
Mr Saleh, whom many analysts accuse of overseeing a corrupt regime that has failed to tackle economic grievances, has reacted to the unrest by backtracking on his plans to seek another term in 2013 and denying accusations that he will try to hand over power to his son.
He has also promised to slash taxes and cap food prices and raise the salaries of civil servants and the military.
Mr Saleh won a seven-year term in Yemen’s first open presidential election, in 2006. Observers said the poll was fair but opposition parties complained of vote rigging. The main challenge to Mr Saleh, analysts say, would likely come if the various opposition groups, particularly the rebels in the south and the north, were to look beyond their own particular grievances to mount a broader political challenge.
President Hosni Mubarak
Egypt has been ruled with a heavy hand by former air force commander Hosni Mubarak since the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat. Now aged 82, President Mubarak is widely viewed as symbolising the old guard of autocratic Arab leaders.
The Human Rights Watch report this year detailed a catalogue of abuses in the Arab world’s most populous nation, including torture by the police, harassment of political opponents, violence against demonstrators and arbitrary detention.
Religious parties are banned – in part to stem the challenge from the Muslim Brotherhood – and although the constitution was changed in 2007 to allow presidential challengers, they arestrictly curtailed to lock out any serious opponents.
Mr Mubarak has not said if he will contest presidential elections due in September, and there are reports that he is grooming his son Gamal Mubarak to succeed him. Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has come out as a strong opposition voice. But as the constitution stands, it is almost impossible for independent candidates to stand.
What worries the West most is the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic movement founded in Egypt in 1928, which has significant support among the population. It has influenced religious groups – both moderate and extreme – across the Muslim world.
Colonel Muammar al Gaddafi
The longest-serving leader in the Arab world, Colonel Muammar al Gaddafi has ruled Libya since seizing power in a bloodless coup in 1969. The eccentric dictator said he was “pained” by the fall of Mr Ben Ali. But despite his pariah status overseas and corruption at home, soaring oil prices have allowed Colonel Gaddafi to maintain high levels of economic growth, while Libyans enjoy a life expectancy of 75, one of the highest in Africa.
Like many oil-rich states, unemployment among the local population is high, with millions of immigrants employed to do the menial jobs. But despite very little political openness and restrictions on freedom of expression, there is no sign that the Libyans have much inclination to rise up against their 69-year-old leader.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika
Two people were killed and hundreds of others injured earlier this month as Algerians angry at the high cost of living clashed with the police. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika moved swiftly to cut food prices, and calm has returned for now, but many are unhappy at Mr Bouteflika’s heavy-handed rule, and unemployment is estimated to be around 20 per cent among the young.
Mr Bouteflika was elected in 1999 and won a third five-year term in 2009. But with more than 90 per cent of ballots cast in his favour, there was widespread criticism of vote fraud and accusations that he had quashed all viable opposition. Although there has been an opening up of the media and widening political freedoms, Mr Bouteflika was criticised for extending the presidential term in office and continuing a ban on the Islamic Salvation Front.
Algeria is also under an indefinite state of emergency, which the government claims is needed to combat Islamist militancy, but Human Rights Watch says it also allows widespread restrictions on freedom of expression, association and assembly.
Sources: GDP 2009 for CAI World Factbook
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