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Protesters' Challenge Stays Strong Across Middle East


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Liane Hansen.

There are protests happening all over the Middle East and North Africa today. In Libya, security forces have reacted with extreme force, opening fire on mourners at a funeral for demonstrators killed earlier. It's the 11th straight day of protests in Yemen. Demonstrators in Bahrain and other countries are also calling for change.

Rob Malley is the Middle East and North Africa Program director for the International Crisis Group. He's in our Washington studio.

Welcome to the program.

Dr. ROB MALLEY (Director, Middle East and North Africa Program, International Crisis Group): Thanks for having me.

HANSEN: Line up the countries - protests in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco, Algeria. Is this the domino effect that a lot of analysts predicted after the protests in Tunisia?

Dr. MALLEY: Well, I'm not even sure people have predicted that it would spread so quickly and so far. I mean it certainly is an inspiration effect. People use the word contagion but that's not exactly right. Where there is an inspiration, and partly because people see that they can succeed and so there is a sense of empowerment.

There is also contagion because the natures of the regimes in so many of these places are similar. And because the sources of dissatisfaction are also the same, and so you see things spreading from one place to another, but then the paths diverge because the regimes responded very differently because societies are different and because the countries themselves have very different histories.

HANSEN: Well, the peaceful protests were pretty peaceful in Tunisia and Egypt; violent crackdowns in Bahrain and Libya, Algeria and Yemen. Is that also in some way a legacy of earlier protests and these governments apparently have decided not to tolerate any dissent?

Dr. MALLEY: Yeah, I think there's several lessons that governments and regimes can learn from what happened. One is you got to make concessions quickly to try to preempt the protests. That's what the Jordanians have tried to do. That's what others have tried to do by increasing salaries, or meeting with the opposition, or dismissing their governments, or pledging that they wouldnt run again as the Iraqi did or the Yemeni did.

But another lesson may be, and this is what's more dangerous, we need to crack down hard and fast because otherwise people feel that they can beat us. And it's going to be a test of wills, we need to show that we can shoot back and they won't continue to protest. That appears to be what Colonel Gadhafi in Libya has learned from the Tunisian and Egyptian cases.

HANSEN: But what real effects are these crackdowns having on the protesters? I mean, you know, if Gadhafi wants intimidation, couldn't the protesters be emboldened?

Dr. MALLEY: Well, you know, that's what happened even in Egypt. Now, the crackdown never was that bad scale. But what happened was the crackdown simply validated the image that the protesters had of the regime already. They felt that the regime was other, was alien, was not of the people, and so once they started using violence - as happened in one case in Tahrir Square in what, a few days - the protesters felt this is exactly why we're protesting and this is exactly why we're going to continue.

But one can't be sure that's going to happen everywhere. And if the crackdown is as violent as it is in Libya, who knows whether at some point that they don't succeed - at least for now - in tamping down the protests.

HANSEN: You just returned from a trip to the region, correct?

Dr. MALLEY: Yes.

HANSEN: Where did you go? And what changes did you see happening?

Dr. MALLEY: Well, I was in Tunisia, Lebanon and Syria. And the first change was that nobody wanted to talk about the countries in which they were. All eyes were on Cairo because it was really in the midst of the Egyptian revolution. And so they were looking at it often with excitement, many times with apprehension, but also with just question marks about how far this would spread.

You know, in a country like Syria, they don't really want to talk about whether it could affect them then directly. But, you know, there was a sense of jubilation at the fall of a foe, but also worry about what could happen in Syria itself on the part of the regime.

HANSEN: As you said, some countries have offered certain concessions, pledges of reform. In Bahrain, they've even promised families a cash payment.

What do these strategies tell you about the governments in the region? What do they say about it?

Dr. MALLEY: Well, it says that they all feel worried about what's happening now. The question of whether these concessions will work. I mean recall in the case of Egypt, to Mubarak very quickly announced a series of concessions. But the protesters had one demand, which was incompatible with the president himself - they wanted him to leave.

And that was the same in Tunisia, where I just was, it's the same thing. It very quickly became personalized: We want Ben Ali out. If that's what the protests are about, then these concessions obviously can't succeed.

HANSEN: And did you see it spreading further?

Dr. MALLEY: Listen, it spread already so far. I mean I think it will spread because people become emboldened, perhaps even beyond the Middle East. I mean I think that it's very possible that in other places. And there are many dogs that have been barked yet. We haven't seen anything in Palestine. We haven't seen anything in other places.

The question, of course, is number one: to the regimes react the same way as in Tunisia and Egypt, or do they react the way the Libyans are, and do Egypt and Tunisia succeed? If they succeed and it's like quiet or peaceful democratic transition, then the inspiration will be even greater. If they fail, if you see chaos, if you see social unrest - which you may see - I mean one thing I picked up in Tunisia is already dissatisfaction at the fact that the social grievances - it's already been a month and the social grievances haven't been addressed and there's insecurity.

If that becomes a theme and you see chaos and you see instability, then maybe the inspiration will be lessened.

HANSEN: And then finally, in about the minute we have left, what about the diplomatic role of the U.S. in all of this? What does the landscape look like for the Obama administration?

Dr. MALLEY: Well, two things. First, I think, you know, this has obviously been a very delicate balancing act for them. Most of the countries that are involved, that are caught up in this, have been very faithful allies of the U.S., Egypt first and foremost. President Mubarak was a close ally that delivered on almost everything that the U.S. expected it to do.

So it was very hard for the U.S. all of a sudden to say that they applauded the demonstrators. They did that sort of gradually. And they're going to find that dilemma everywhere - in Bahrain and throughout the region.

The other question, of course, is what is all this doing to the U.S. posture in the region? And it's certainly going to throw into question the pillars of U.S. policy in the Middle East for the last several decades, when its key allies are no longer going to be in power.

HANSEN: Rob Malley is the Middle East and North Africa Program director for the International Crisis Group.

Thanks so much for coming in to the studio.

Dr. MALLEY: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.