Arab Spring uprising roils Middle East region, opens new era

450×300_cns_136901.jpgBy Patricia Zapor
Young people wave flags atop an army vehicle at Tahrir Square in Cairo Feb. 12, a day after the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. (CNS photo/Dylan Martinez, Reuters)
WASHINGTON (CNS) — What turned out to be a yearlong Arab Spring of grass-roots uprisings in 2011 left several countries with new leadership and a death toll in the tens of thousands, most from a full-scale civil war in Libya.

Meanwhile, protests in Israel and efforts by Palestinians to obtain full recognition in the United Nations ramped up pressure for achieving a two-state solution to peace.

The wave of protests began Dec. 18, 2010, in Tunisia after Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest police corruption and to publicize his problems with trying to run a small business. By the time Bouazizi died of his injuries in early January, public protests had taken root in Tunis and other cities. Longtime President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali stepped down under pressure Jan. 14 and fled to Saudi Arabia.

Since then, Tunisia has dissolved its political police force and other institutions associated with the Ben Ali regime and moved toward creating a new government.

The spirit that overtook Tunisia in January spread, leading to the resignation of Yemen’s prime minister and to the overthrow of the governments of Egypt and Libya, following protests that turned violent, and then to outright war in Libya.

In a dozen other countries, unprecedented protests ranged from peaceful and fairly restrained — as in Jordan and Lebanon — to brutally violent in Syria. By May, border clashes in Israel were connected to the uprising spirit.

Across North Africa and the Middle East, grass-roots protests continued and escalated through the fall. In August, after a sustained battle over the Libyan capital of Tripoli, rebels overwhelmed President Moammar Gadhafi’s compound and began taking over national government functions.

Libya’s bloody civil war ended with the Oct. 20 capture of Gadhafi in a drainage pipe near Sirte. He died later that same day, reportedly after being brutalized and shot by his captors. An estimated 30,000 people were killed in Libya’s civil war.

Though the region is mostly Muslim, the protests had repercussions for people of all religions.

For instance, in Libya, most Catholics were foreign workers. Several missionaries told Catholic News Service they remained in the country to help those people, although they serve Muslims, too. Although some migrants were evacuated, many who stayed behind lost their jobs and had nowhere else to go, leaving them searching for food, medicine, clothing and most of all, rent money.

In Egypt, the unity between Christians and Muslims forged after the revolution seemed to deteriorate as Islamic fundamentalists began attacks on Christians, Cardinal Antonios Naguib, Coptic Catholic patriarch of Alexandria, said in early November.

Christian leaders, including Father Rafic Greiche, spokesman for the Catholic Church in Egypt, said the army and police were confronting the Copts. He said that “people — not just Christians but many Muslims, too — are frightened for the future of our country.”

Coptic Christians make up about a 10th of the 81 million people of Egypt.

As the year drew to a close, the only ongoing grass-roots revolution was in Syria. In early December, the United Nations estimated more than 4,000 people had been killed in an uprising against President Bashar Assad since March.

World leaders had since fall increasingly called on Assad to step aside to avoid a full-scale civil war.

Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan told CNS in October that attempts from outside Syria to collapse the government, “will very probably lead to chaos.”