Bernhard Zand: What the Arab World's Past Can Tell Us About Its Future





[Bernhard Zand is Gulf and Middle East Correspondent at DER SPIEGEL.]

It's hard to think of a more peaceful place in the Middle East than the calm and orderly port town of Sohar in Oman, where hibiscus bushes bloom year-round and residents relax over water pipes and tea. All of this was true until Sunday, Feb. 27, when 2,000 men staged a protest at a large roundabout. The police shot and killed at least one protester. He and his fellow protesters had demanded higher wages and complained about rampant corruption in the government of Sultan Qaboos bin Said, 70.

Until Thursday, Feb. 24, Qatif, an oasis city in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, was distinguished mainly by palm trees, sand and -- ever since the world's largest oil field was discovered there 60 years ago -- oil. But then a group of Shiites took to the streets to demand the release of three of their fellow Shiites. King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz, 86, had never experienced anything quite like it in his realm.

Benghazi in Cyrenaica, the verdant, remote eastern region of Libya, is about a 1,000-kilometer drive along the coastal road from the capital Tripoli. Colonel Moammar Gadhafi ruled the region for 41 years. Until two weeks ago, that is, when men drove through the city, dressed, like in a Carnival parade, as Gadhafi. "Libya is free," they chanted. "God is great."

It seems today that the reign of this Middle Eastern dictator, at least, will end in 2011. Former US Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz called Gadhafi a "dead man walking," and the Kremlin spoke of a "walking political corpse."

Completely Unpredictable

Their predictions may still prove premature, however. If the events of the last few weeks, from Tunis to Cairo, from Bahrain to Benghazi, have proved one thing, it is that political events are entirely unpredictable. No one anticipated that the self-immolation of unemployed fruit vendor Mohammed Bouazizi in a small Tunisian city would lead to the overthrow of the most powerful ruler in the Middle East in Cairo only a few weeks later.

But what comes next, after the ouster of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak?..


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