Mohammed Bouazizi, a Tunisian fruit vendor, could never have guessed that when he doused himself in paint thinner and lit a match on December 17, he would throw the world's most volatile region into chaos. His act of protest inspired riots that overthrew the government in Tunisia, and that inspired demonstrators in Egypt to oust President Hosni Mubarak this month. Last week, the fire has spread to Bahrain, the West Bank and Gaza, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Algeria, Syria, Jordan, Kuwait, and Lebanon.
This week, the world's attention has focused on Lybia, where anti-government protestors set fire to the parliament building in Tripoli amidst the greatest challenge to the rule of Muammar Qadhafi in his four decades in power. Reports suggest that the embattled dictator ordered the country's air force to fire on demonstrators, killing many. Qadhafi's son, meanwhile, said his father would fight "to the last bullet."
For Washington, the stakes of the unrest in the Middle East couldn't be higher. Lybia, once an international pariah, has become more friendly with the west since it abandoned its nuclear program in 2003. Egypt is one of the closest U.S. allies in the region and a critical partner in both Mideast diplomacy and the fight against terrorist groups. The island nation of Bahrain is an important regional finance center, and it's the headquarters of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet and home to more than 4,000 uniformed service members, according to Pentagon officials. And, as always, volatility in the oil-rich region can have economically crippling impacts on the price at the pump. Gas prices this week hit were the highest since 1990, and crude oil now tops $105 per barrel.
The Obama administration has dealt with the rash of uprisings largely behind the scenes, though it issued numerous statements as the crisis in Egypt mounted, culminating in Mubarak's resignation. Washington's official stance for all of the crises has been primarily to call for nonviolence from all sides. "There's a significant need for political, social, and economic reform across the region, and we encourage governments to respect their citizens' right to protest peacefully [and] respect their right to freedom of expression and assembly," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said last week.
But the traditional freedoms, including speech and assembly, were augmented in a speech by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who made a plea for Internet freedom, seen as a critical organizational tool in the wave of demonstrations. "Internet freedom isn't about any one particular activity online," Clinton said during a speech at the George Washington University. "It's about ensuring that the Internet remains a space where activities of all kinds can take place, from grand, ground-breaking, historic campaigns to the small, ordinary acts that people engage in every day."
Mideast experts have pointed to the organizational usefulness of the Internet, but also the influence that news channels like Al-Jazeera have had in both fueling unrest and documenting violence. Information coming out of Libya has been more limited, as the country has banned international journalists and severed access to the Internet.
The iconic images of peaceful protesters and soldiers joining hands in Egypt have not been repeated as the protests have spread. In Iran, there were violent clashes between pro- and anti-government demonstrators. An estimated 1,500 people have been arrested nationwide. Yemeni police officers shot and killed several protesters in the southern port city of Aden last week, and in Bahrain, police used rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse protesters. Several protesters were reported killed.