Protests Spread from Morocco to Yemen
The protests in Tunisia that led to the toppling of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali have inspired demonstrators from Morocco to Yemen. The Tunisian who tipped events off, Bouazizi, was an unemployed university graduate who doused himself with petrol and set himself alight in the city of Sidi Bouzid on December 17. He was protesting official harassment of his street-side produce business, but his act quickly came to symbolize government abuse and the absence of economic opportunity.
Thereafter, clashes broke out in Algeria as opposition groups defied a government decision on Friday. Police cracked down on a pro-democracy demonstration in the Algerian capital on Saturday leaving several people injured, the leader of an opposition party that organized the rally told AFP.
“There are several injured… and numerous arrests,” Said Sadi, the head of the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), said. Among those arrested was the head of the party’s parliamentary group, Othmane Amazouz.
The government had warned people not to show support for the demonstration in a statement issued on the eve of the march, amid fears of popular unrest spreading from neighboring Tunisia.
“Citizens are asked to show wisdom and vigilance and not respond to possible provocation aimed at disturbing their tranquility, peace of mind and serenity,” said the statement, carried by the official news agency APS.
About 300 people who defied the ban to attempt to hold the demonstration were confronted by dozens of police armed with batons, tear gas and Plexiglas shields.
Demonstrations are banned in Algeria because of a state of emergency in place since 1992.
Mounting public grievances over unemployment and rising costs sparked protests in Algeria earlier this month which left five people dead and more than 800 injured.
The government responded swiftly by reducing the prices of oil, sugar and other basic necessities which had risen sharply, while buying up a million tonnes of wheat amid assurances that subsidies on essential goods like flour would continue.
In the past two weeks eight people have set themselves on fire in Algeria, although some cases were deemed to be linked to mental health issues.
Unemployment, specifically of the young, is a key issue in Algeria, where according to the authorities 15 million of the 36 million population is under the age of 30.
In Tunisia, similar unrest sparked the overthrow of the government of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, whose 23 years in power ended with his flight to Saudi Arabia.
On Friday, More than 5,000 people rallied in Amman and other cities in Jordan after weekly prayers on Friday against economic policies, demanding “bread and freedom” and that the government resign.
“(Prime Minister Samir) Rifai, out, out! People of Jordan will not bow,” protesters chanted as they marched from the Al-Hussein mosque in central Amman to the nearby municipality building. “Our demands are legitimate. We want bread and freedom.”
Police handed out bottles of water and juice to the demonstrators, who carried banners reading, “We demand social justice and freedom,” “No to oppression, yes to change” and, “We need a national salvation government.”
Police spokesman Mohammad Khatib said about 4,000 people took part in the capital’s peaceful protest, organized by the powerful Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the Islamic Action Front (IAF).
About 1,400 people demonstrated in other parts of Jordan, mainly the northern cities of Zarqa and Irbid.
Rifai on Thursday announced a $283 million plan to raise salaries of government staff as well as the pensions of retired government employees and servicemen in the face of popular discontent. The current minimum wage is $211 a month.
But the Islamist opposition and others say the new measures are not enough as poverty levels are running at 25 per cent in the desert kingdom, whose capital is the most expensive city in the Arab world, according to several independent studies.
Official unemployment is about 14 per cent. But other estimates put the jobless figure at as high as 30 percent.
On the same day, thousands protested in southern Yemen to reject political reforms proposed by the government, including a limit on presidential terms, saying they did not go far enough.
The government announced its reform plans in the face of growing discontent that sparked sporadic protests this week.
Opposition parties said they would meet on Saturday to discuss the offer, as thousands of people demonstrated in the southern town of Taiz. President Ali Abdullah Saleh has ruled Yemen for over three decades.
“We want constitutional amendments but we want amendments that don’t lead to the continuance of the ruler and the inheritance of power to his children,” said Mohammed Al-Sabry, head of the opposition coalition and the Islamist party Islah.
“We won’t permit these corrupt leaders to stay in power and we are ready to sleep in the streets for our country’s sake, in order to liberate it from the hands of the corrupt,” Sabry told Reuters.
Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, is facing soaring unemployment and the oil reserves that buoy its economy are dwindling. Almost half of its population of 23 million lives on $2 a day or less.
Two protests this week at Sanaa University criticized autocratic Arab leaders, including Saleh. Protesters held signs with the warning: “Leave before you are forced to leave.”
The pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat reported that an unemployed Yemeni youth set himself on fire in the southern province of Baidah on Wednesday, following the example of the young vegetable seller whose self-immolation inspired revolt in Tunisia and copycat acts in Egypt, Algeria and Mauritania.
The young man’s father told state television that his son accidentally burned himself when their house caught fire, though some speculated the statement was made under pressure.
Yemen’s government is also struggling to quell a resurgent wing of Al-Qaeda based in the country and cement a fragile truce with Shi’ite rebels in the north.