Monday, March 21, 2005

Good news from Islamic world, part 5: the special pro-democracy edition 

I'm having a deja-vu to the 1980s, when as a young lad stuck on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain I watched with some bemusement the safe and comfortable citizens of Western democracies rallying for "peace" and protesting aggressive American policies, while around me people were risking if not life than certainly limb and their future marching for freedom, democracy and human rights.

While throughout major cities of Western world crowds - albeit much diminished since three or two years ago - have turned up over the weekend for anti-democracy rallies to protest the second anniversary of the start of the liberation of Iraq, one region of the world remained strangely unaffected by the "anti-war" and "anti-occupation" fervor: the notorious "Arab street" has failed to join the "European street" and the "American street" in condemning yet again Chimpy Bushhitler and his imperialist policies. The only significant exception throughout the Middle East was Turkey, where rallies in three major cities could only muster several hundred people between them.

Everywhere else, the second anniversary of invasion did not incite much public excitement - possibly because the local residents were too busy rallying against terrorism and theocracy, and for freedom, democracy and human rights. Here's a round-up of the Middle Eastern action over the last few weeks, some of it very familiar, some of it you might have missed:


In late February, "friends and family of webmaster Ali Abdulemam gathered outside the Public Prosecution building, in Manama... to demonstrate against his arrest... The 27-year-old computer engineer with EDS company has been detained for 15 days over comments that appeared on his website Bahrainonline.org, which was shut down by the Information Ministry in 2002.

"However, the website - which has a membership of around 20,000 and gets around 80,000 hits a day - has continued to function using Internet servers outside the country. Yesterday his supporters covered their mouths with tape and staged a silent protest outside the Public Prosecution offices - symbolising their claim that he had been gagged." Abdulemam is accused of "inciting resentment against the government".


Since early December, Cairo has witnessed a series of anti-government demonstrations demanding free and democratic election that would not result in an automatic re-election of President Mubarak to his fifth consecutive term in office. "The rallies, organised by the Egyptian Movement for Change, have coined a slogan —'kefaya' (enough) -- to vent their exasperation with Mubarak and his consecutive administrations."

A few days ago, Egyptian opposition activist Ayman Nour declared to the cheering crowd of about 1,000 supporters that he will stand against Hosni Mubarak in the presidential election later this year. Said Nour: "They [the ruling party] have to apologise for the false elections during the past miserable 50 years... We have never chosen a president before ... Change is coming one day, and that day is soon."

On the second anniversary of the Coalition entry into Iraq, some 300 protesters have gathered in the capital to rally against the occupation. By all accounts, large sections of the crowd have spent most of the time venting their anger at their own government, sporting "No to Mubarak" stickers on their foreheads and chanting the opposition slogan "Enough!"


In the aftermath of the deadly terrorist attack in Hillah, which claimed some 125 lives, two thousand local residents came out onto the streets and protested at the scene of the carnage, chanting "No to terrorism!"

In the latest of the recent series of demonstrations in Baghdad, 2,000 Shia protested outside the Jordanian embassy, angered that the alleged perpetrator of the Hillah suicide attack was a Jordanian national.

In Basra, thousands of local university students were protesting the thuggish behavior of the followers of Muqtada al Sadr and other religious leaders. Raising signs "No to terrorism, No to [Religious] Parties", Basra University is currently on strike, demanding the government provides better security and protection from the self-appointed guardians of public order.


Last week, Iranians were celebrating the New Year's Festival of Fire, an old Persian tradition that the mullahs have been trying their hardest to suppress. Despite, or perhaps because of that, the celebrations around the country turned into anti-government rallies. In Teheran, protesters - going with the fire theme - set alight effigies of mullahs and other leaders while chanting "We need no Sheikh or Mullah, we curse YOU - RUHOLLAH!" and "Referendum, referendum, this is the people's dictum." "In another area of the city people took to setting the French flag on fire while chanting: 'Europe is finished and so are their Mullahs.' OR 'Bush, Bush, where is Bush?' (In Persian this rhymes: Bush, Bush, kush, kush!)."

Celebrations degenerated into violent riots in other cities around the country, including Karaj, Ahvaaz and Mash'had. Other reports talk of demonstrations in most of Iran's provinces and major cities. In the town of Shiraz, the protesters chanted "Bush, you told us to rise up, and so we have. Why don'’t you act?"


In early March, Kuwaiti women and their male supporters protested outside the Kuwaiti parliament, demanding the right to vote. "Holding blue and white signs saying 'Half a democracy is not a democracy' about 700 men and women chanted 'Women's rights, now!' as lawmakers entered the parliament building." Kuwaiti parliament is currently considering extending suffrage to women.


Anywhere between 800,000 and 1.5 million rallying in Beirut for the end of Syrian occupation and free elections. Enough said.

P.S. On the account of my "Good news from..." series I frequently get accused of unjustified optimism or even rampant triumphalism. This misinterprets my intention; I never try to deny or downplay bad news and negative developments (which usually get a pretty good run in the media anyway), merely try to bring together in an accessible form information that is often scattered and otherwise not very accessible. Be that as it may, just to remind you that not all movement throughout the region is now one-way, you can read here about two huge pro-Assad rallies in Syria (hundreds of thousands of people, according to the official news agency) and an anti-Musharraf rally in Pakistan, organised by the Islamist opposition, which attracted tens of thousands of people.

The struggle for freedom is never quick and never easy.


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