The popular uprising in Tunisia that ousted former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali on January 14 has inspired similar uprisings in Yemen and Egypt this week.
Tens of thousands of people rallied in Yemen’s capital of Sanaa Thursday, shutting down streets and calling for an end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 32-year reign. “We will not accept anything less than the president leaving,” independent parliamentarian Ahmed Hashid said. “We’ll only be happy when we hear the words ‘I understand you’ from the president,” he added, invoking the statement issued by Tunisian President Ben Ali before fleeing the country.
A protester tears a poster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak
Meanwhile, in Egypt, rioting continued for the third day in a row Thursday as protesters called for the end of longtime President Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship. Since their start Tuesday, at least six people have died, hundreds have been injured, and nearly 1,000 detained. The 82-year-old Mubarak, who has ruled with an iron fist for nearly three decades, has not been seen since the riots broke out.
In both countries, activists are calling on people to come out in force on Friday. Most notably, Egyptian demonstrators are using social networking sites to call for more protests in Cairo after Friday prayers. Mohammed ElBaradei, former head of the UN’s nuclear watchdog and prime challenger to Mubarak’s regime, is expected to energize activists when he returns to Egypt Thursday night and joins in Friday’s rallies.
While the U.S. supports democratic reforms in the Middle East, the latest riots are a cause of concern for Washington, as the dictatorships in Sanaa and Cairo help maintain stability in the region. Yemen is one of the Middle East’s most impoverished nations and home to a resurgent branch of al-Qaeda – which the current government has helped Washington combat. Moreover, Egypt is home to a strong and popular Muslim Brotherhood movement – an Islamist organization that has backed Friday’s upcoming protests.
Even with such fears, not supporting freedom for the populations of Tunisia, Yemen, and Egypt would be a grave mistake. Washington should show its support for the democratic system by calling on the respective governments to concede to the democratic reforms its people demand.