Sudarsan Raghavan on Egypt-inspired demonstrations in Bahrain, Yemen

Feb 15, 2011

Washington Post Africa Bureau Chief Sudarsan Raghavan will be online Tuesday, Feb. 15, at noon, to talk about how the events in Egpyt have sparked clashes in Yemen, Bahrain and Iran.

Hi Everyone,

I've been covering the Arab uprisings since it started in Tunisia. I've also been in Egypt and Yemen, where I am currently writing from. It's an exciting time to be covering this region and witnessing the momentous changes that are unfolding in so many countries.  Glad to be here, and I look forward to your questions. So fire away!


What makes Egypt different than the other countries? How do the demonstrations themselves differ? How exactly do protesters organize themselves?

This is a great question to start up our conversation.  I have not yet been in Bahrain or Iran, but I have spent a lot of time in Yemen. One would have expected Yemenis to rise up with as much fury and energy as the Egyptians did. They face even greater poverty, higher unemployment, rising prices, as well as deep resentment at President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled Yemen for 32 years.  But unlike Egypt, Yemen has a smaller middle class, high rates of illiteracy, and a weak civil society. Internet penetration is very low here, so the use of Facebook, Twitter and social media that organized and fueled Egypt's rebellion is very limited in Yemen. In addition, there's a division between Yemen's political opposition and the protesters, mostly students and activists, we have seen on the streets. The political opposition wants reforms while the protesters want regime change. This is another reason why we have not seen the sort of momentum here as we have in Egypt. The demonstrators tend to organize themselves through text messages and simple word of mouth, although there is growing use of Facebook.

How tightly controlled is internet access and cellphone use in Iran, Bahrain and Yemen? Will that information control play a role in protests?

Another great question...In Yemen, so far, the internet has not been restricted at all, but again it's not a major organizing tool for the protesters.  In Iran, we have seen the hardliners calling for the arrest, even the execution, of opposition protesters. I can only imagine that they are also clamping down on the Internet, especially Facebook, which Iranian activists widely used to mobilize during their uprisings in 2009. Meanwhile, Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa made a rare national TV address, promised to loosen state controls on the media and Internet, a clear sign that like he's considered that uprisings could spawn an Egypt-like revolt.

The Egyptian army either was not told to use force, or told the government they would not fire on the public. It seems that was a key tipping point. Where do you think the armies in Yemen, UAE and Iran will line up - government or public?

Another great question. In Yemen, the army is staunchly loyal to President Saleh. But aside from protecting key areas of the capital, they have not yet played a significant role in the uprisings here, at least in the capital.  The military has focused its resources more in the south in an attempt to quell a secessionist movement. It's also an area where we are seeing growing anti-government protests.  It's hard to tell where Yemen's military will stand -- certainly, its internal security service and police, who have confronted with protesters, are siding with the government.  In Iran, convesntinal wisdom would say that the military and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard will side with the hardliners in the government. But, as Egypt and Tunisia have shown, there have been many surprises. Who would have thought Egypt's military generals would side with the people and push out Hosni Mubarak, a man they have long been indebted to ?

Isn't it a problem that both Yemen and Bahrain have shia majorities, but ruled by the sunni minority? Since Iran is the only Shia muslim country in the world, wouldn't democracy in both these two countries bring them closer to Iran, and move them away from Saudi Arabia and the West?

At least for now, my sense is that these revolutions are being driven not by religion, but by core economic and political frustrations, and a sense that this is the moment to bring about generational change in the Arab world. I think it's much too early to say whether Yemen and Bahrain could one day move closer to Iran. 

Can the Ayatollahs in Iran still count on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to suppress the public? I've read there may be splits with the IRG over this. It seems to me that without their total support, the Ayatollahs risk the demonstrations going beyond their control, and their power would be at risk.

Certainly, the Ayatollahs will need to count on the support of the Revolutionary Guard.  The hardliners' internal security apparatus  played an important role in crushing the opposition uprisings in 2009.  This time around, as my colleauge Thomas Erdbrink reports from Iran, the protesters appear to be more defiant than in 2009, inspired by what's unfolded in Egypt and Tunisia. Does that mean we'll see a greater crackdown or perhaps splits within powerful entities like the Republican Guard? It's anyone's guess.  We are witnessing an event unlike anything this region has experienced in recent memory.

In the USA, Democrats believe the election of a Muslim-rooted president is providing a role model for young educated Muslims around the world that they can achieve anything. Republicans are calling this the fruit of the previous President's commitment not to leave that port of the world behind the march to democracy. Do the demonstrators you talk to see America as an important part of their inspiration, or an irrelevancy to long-dormant complaints?

A very important question. Most demonstrators I've spoken with say that Washington's support is important to the sucess of their rebellions.  They do not appreciate that their autocrats are close allies of the US, but they are also gratified, even emboldened, by the US role in pushing Mubarak from power.  In Yemen, certainly, they hope the US will act in a similar fashion, if their rebellion reaches the intensity of what we saw in Egypt.  Many here say that the ideals they are seeking -- democracy, basic freedoms, human rights, and the right to a better quality of life --  are ones inspired by American values.

Do you have a sense of how organized and prescient these revolutions/protests are? It's one thing to just protest the status quo and/or overthrow the current leader/despot; it's quite another to have a forthright plan in place for the aftermath--one group wants representative democracy, another winner-take-all democracy, another sharia, another Marxism, etc. Frankly, can I trust the Egyptian military to effectively transition to a democratic leadership over a year or two, or could we just see a junta replacing Mubarak long-term?

Great question, again. You have correctly noted the two big questions on the minds of many Egyptians and, for that matter, in western and Arab capitals. What's next? As we move towards elections in Egypt, I think we're going to see all sorts of political shifts, compromises, ideological realignments, and plenty of squabbles as groups try to shape the future of a new Egypt.  Will the military allow this? Or will they seize power and place yet another military men at the political helm? Egyptians are  worried about the latter scenario. But at the same time, the streets have gained a new and formidable power, and many here say that if they don't get a civilian, democractic government that has been elected free and fairly, they will again take to the streets.

The Muslim Brotherhood has announced, as expected, that they will form a political party in Egypt. How will other competing political parties form to provide an alternative, especially given the limited amount of time until elections may be called?

The Muslim Brotherhood is certainly the largest and most organized group.  Because of this, many of its leaders say six months is more than enough for free and fair elections. But for other political leaders, that's not the case. Some say that Egypt needs as long as two years to hold elections, so that viable political parties can emerge and campaign on a level playing field. We'll certainly going to see a lot of political and ideological realignments and compromises between various groups that is likely to transform the egyptian political landscape unlike anything we have seen.

I sent a question an hour or so ago. It pertains to my daughter signing a two year contract in Bahrain for a kindergarden teaching position. The school is Kardoon in the capital. Should she go ahead?

Tough question, and one I can't really answer.  I suggest contacting the US embassy or the school itself, asking what conditions are like, are expatriates being targeted and, if so, what sort of protective measures are in place.

How difficult is it going to be for the Egyptians to get the corruption out of their system? By all accounts it is very entrenched. I guess revolutions are messy things. This isn't going to be a clean, easy, quick process or transition is it?

Hard to say, but certainly the rampant corruption has been a key elements that drove the rebellion. So I imagine any future government will be elected only if it pledges to root out graft. But you're right. Changing a mindset and attitude that is deeply rooted over decades is not going to be clean or easy. Nor will it unfold quickly.


I have to run now to file a story. My apologies to those people whose questions I haven't answered. They were all fantastic! And I wish I had more time! 





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Sudarsan Raghavan
Sudarsan Raghavan is The Washington Post's Africa bureau chief.
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