Women show Arab flags of Syria during a demonstration. (Photo: Reuters)
On Wednesday, Egypt began its first free presidential election since it came under dictatorship 60 years ago. The winner will succeed Hosni Mubarak, one of four rulers toppled in the uprisings that began 18 months ago across the Middle East and became known as the Arab Spring. But replacing dictatorships with democracy is proving much harder. Here's where things stand:
The first Arab country to throw off its ruler, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in January 2011, Tunisia has also had the smoothest transition. Elections in October resulted in an interim coalition led by the election-winning Islamist Ennahda Party in a coalition with two liberal parties. Ennahda has taken a moderate track in this country that has a strong secular heritage, refraining from seeking to base the new constitution on Islamic law. But secular Tunisians worry that ultraconservative Islamists known as Salafis have grown more assertive.
Since Hosni Mubarak was toppled on Feb. 11, 2011, Egypt has been ruled by the military in a tumultuous transition. Protests against the generals have repeatedly turned into deadly clashes killing dozens. A series of military-installed interim governments have been largely ineffectual, hesitant to make significant decisions. Police, angered and humiliated during the anti-Mubarak uprising, have often refused to work, letting crime increase. With big money earners like tourism and foreign investment plunging, fueling unemployment, the government has burned through more than half its hard currency reserves to prop up the Egyptian pound. Islamists won the first post-Mubarak parliamentary election and stand a good chance of capturing the presidency. Divisions run deep, with some fearing the imposition of Islamic rule, and others that the military is angling to keep a grip on the country.
What began in January 2011 as a wave of peaceful protests against President Bashar Assad has turned into a bloodbath and near civil war, with well over 9,000 dead. Assad's regime responded to the protests with gunfire and some opponents have taken up arms, joined by army defectors. The military has responded with all-out assaults on opposition areas, leaving heavy destruction in neighborhoods of some cities. The conflict has also taken on a worrying sectarian tone. The Sunni Muslim majority largely backs the opposition, while the Alawites and other minorities support Assad, himself an Alawite. There have been tit-for-tat killings and a string of suicide bombings against military buildings.
Protests against Moammar Gadhafi, Libya's strongman for more than 40 years, quickly turned into civil war. Much of the eastern half of the country threw off his rule early last year, and the ramshackle rebel army tried to march on the west. It took months of NATO airstrikes to open the way for rebels to take Tripoli, the capital. Gadhafi fled and two months later was caught and killed. The oil-rich North African nation has been mired in instability ever since. The rebel militias refuse to disarm and have carved out fiefdoms, sometimes taking brutal revenge against suspected regime supporters. The east has made moves to declare autonomy while the ruling National Transitional Council is largely ineffectual. A major test of the country's chances for stability comes in national elections next month and an effort to write a constitution.
In power for 33 years, President Ali Abdullah Saleh clung to his post through a year of nationwide daily protests. Many allies abandoned him, major military units joined the opposition, and a bomb blast at his palace badly burned him. Finally, after balking three times at resigning, he bent to U.S. and Gulf pressure and agreed to step down in return for immunity from prosecution. He left office in February, his vice president was elected president unopposed, and a coalition of Salah's party and the opposition took over. But Saleh's son and nephew command elite military units and his loyalists remain in posts throughout the government. His opponents accuse him of using those levers to hamper the new government as it tries to deal with poverty and deep tribal divisions. Saleh's replacement as president, Abed Rabbo Hadi, has stepped up cooperation with Washington in a major offensive against al-Qaida militants who seized control of parts of the south.
Majority Shiites on the tiny island nation of Bahrain, a vital U.S. ally and home to the U.S. Navy in the region, mounted a wave of protests alleging discrimination and disenfranchisement by the Sunni monarchy, which responded with two months of martial law. In March last year, Saudi Arabia, which feared the Shiite uprising was a proxy for spreading Iranian influence, led a Gulf military force into Bahrain that helped largely crush the protests, though they have continued sporadically. In all, at least 50 people have died. The conservative Sunni-led Gulf monarchies have largely prevented the eruption of protests. Saudi Arabia saw some demonstrations by its own Shiite minority, which it promptly put down, and the king sought to quell discontent with largesse.