Political unrest spreads in the Middle East

22 March 2011

Protests break out in Syria as international coalition intervenes in Libya


On 20 March, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa pledged Bahrain would continue with its political reforms. Meanwhile, security forces continued to arrest protesters and government forces demolished the Pearl roundabout, the symbolic centre of the protest movement. The US has made several calls for Bahrain to accept a negotiated settlement to the protests.

US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said on 19 March that “violence is not the answer, a political process is”.

On 20 March, the main opposition group Al-Wefaq appealed to the UN to protect them against violence and to the US to help pressure troops from other Gulf states to leave Bahrain. More than 1,000 troops from Saudi Arabia entered Bahrain on 14 March.


More than 77 per cent of the estimated 14 million Egyptians, who voted in the referendum on 19 March supported amendments to the country’s constitution.

The strong support means that a parliamentary election can now take place as early as September. The amendments include reducing the presidential term from six years to four years and limiting a president to two terms. Former president Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt for nearly 30 years. Other amendments include obliging the president to choose a deputy within 30 days of election and installing new criteria for presidential candidates, such as that they must be more than 40 years of age and not married to a non-Egyptian.

The amendments will also restore full judicial supervision of elections, seen as key to preventing fraud.

In a sign that Egypt is to prioritise the economy, on 23 March, it was announced the General Authority for Investment will report directly to the Council of Ministers.


On 19 March, missiles and ground attack aircraft descended on government forces near rebel-held Benghazi as an international coalition moved to enforce a UN-mandated no-fly zone and ceasefire.

The missiles also struck Tripoli, Misrata, Mitiga, Zawara and Sirte.

Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi had earlier agreed to the ceasefire, but his forces continued their assault on rebel positions in Benghazi. On 19 March, the no-fly zone was introduced and on 20 March, coalition missiles hit Qaddafi’s Bab al-Azizia compound in Tripoli.

US officials said the strikes were aimed at Libya’s armed forces and air defence systems, rather than Qaddafi himself. However, President Barack Obama said that removing Qaddafi was part of the policy. A rift also grew in the UK government when Prime Minister David Cameron said the removal of Qaddafi is desirable, while Defence Minister Liam Fox insisted on a mandate imposing a ceasefire.

The UAE dropped plans to send 24 aircraft to help enforce the no-fly zone due to the US’ and Europe’s reaction towards protests in Bahrain.

Coalition warplanes have continued to bombard Libyan government positions for a fifth night, but failed to quell fighting on the ground.

Saudi Arabia

On 20 March, as a precursor to an expected cabinet reshuffle, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud replaced the president of the General Authority for Civil Aviation (Gaca). Faisal bin Hamad al-Sugair was announced as the successor to Abdullah Rehaimi.

On the same day, protests took place outside the Interior Ministry in Riyadh, with demonstrators demanding the release of political prisoners. At least 15 protesters were arrested.

So far, King Abdullah has responded to protests by offering improved wages and benefits, but has failed to make any political concessions.

On 23 March, Saudi Arabia announced plans to hold municipal elections on 23 April. However, women will still be unable to vote.


More than 24 people have been killed since 18 March in the southern city of Deraa. Demonstrators first gathered in the city to call for increased political freedom and an end to corruption.

Protests continued during the week and police tried to disperse crowds as the unrest entered its third continuous day. During the protest, demonstrators set fire to several buildings, one of which was the headquarters of the ruling Baath party.

Security forces opened fire on protesters outside the Omari mosque. Tensions escalated further on 23 March after 15 people were killed by security forces.


On 20 March, at least 45 protesters were shot dead in Yemen’s capital Sanaa as gunmen opened fire from rooftops. The incident also left 270 injured and was described as the opposition as a massacre.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh denied the police were behind the attack and announced a state of emergency.

On 21 March, he fired the government of Prime Minister Ali Mujawar. Following the shootings, several high-ranking Yemeni officials resigned. These include Yemen’s ambassador to the UN, the ministers for human rights and tourism, the head of the state news agency and the Yemeni ambassador to Lebanon.

On 22 March, Brigadier General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar defected to the opposition. On 24 March, presidential guards loyal to Saleh clashed in the town of Mukalla with army units backing opposition groups.

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