Crowds have taken to the streets in Libya, Yemen, Iran and Bahrain over the last few days demanding at the very least more representation and at the most the overthrow of leaders.
The protests, inspired by popular revolts in Tunisia and Egypt that saw veteran presidents of both countries driven out of office, have forced the authorities to react, sometimes with fatal consequences.
Thousands of anti-government protesters were on the streets of Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi early on Friday, a day after “day of rage” demonstrations led to fatal skirmishes with the security forces.
BBC radio, quoting an eyewitness, said protesters against Muammar Gaddafi’s four decades long rule had clashed with security forces, who were using guns, and doctors had counted the bodies of 10 people.
In Bahrain, troops in armoured vehicles were in control of the capital after police firing buckshot and teargas pushed out hundreds of protesters early on Thursday who had camped out in central Pearl Square.
It was the worst violence in the Saudi-allied Gulf island kingdom in decades and a sign of the nervousness felt by Bahrain’s Sunni al-Khalifa royal family, long aware of simmering discontent among the country’s majority Shi’ites.
The sectarian aspect of the violence in Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, could fuel discontent among the Shi’ite minority in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter.
The unrest in the region helped push Brent crude prices to a 28-month high of $104 a barrel on Thursday and were a factor in gold prices extending early gains to five-week highs.
FUNERALS MAY SERVE AS RALLYING POINT
The funerals of four people killed in Thursday’s pre-dawn raid in Manama and of several killed in Libya were expected to be held on Friday and could well serve as a rallying point for protesters in both countries.
“There is going to be violence, there is going to be clashes,” a protester in Bahrain called Sayed told BBC television early on Friday of the planned funerals.
“Bahrain is going into a really dark tunnel,” he said, adding he feared for his safety. “If they (the authorities) knew my name, I might lose my job, I might lose my life.”
The army in Bahrain, a country of 1.3 million people of whom 600,000 are native Bahrainis, has issued a warning to people to stay away from the centre of the capital and said it would do whatever was needed to maintain security.
Protesters in the region have been following events in neighbouring countries, many via social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, and will again be watching to what extent Friday, a day of rest for many Muslims, will herald fresh demonstrations. During the Egyptian uprising, demonstrations often heated up on Friday after afternoon prayers.
In Libya, there have been unverified reports on social networks of up to 50 deaths following demonstrations that were a rare show of defiance against Gaddafi. Pro-Gaddafi supporters also were out on the streets early on Friday, according to CNN.
The broadcaster said images transmitted on Libyan state television labelled “live” showed men chanting slogans in support of Gaddafi as fireworks lit up the night sky.
On Thursday in Yemen, four protesters were killed in the port of Aden in demonstrations that began seven days ago and which showed no signs of abating.
Demonstrators want to be rid of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled for 32 years but is seen by Washington as a key ally in its fight against al Qaeda militants based in Yemen.
In Iraq on Thursday, two people were killed and 47 were injured when police opened fire on anti-government protesters in the northern city of Sulaimaniya.
Leaders from the Gulf to the Atlantic have announced a variety of measures to ease rising food prices and unemployment and to enhance political participation.
The oil-rich United Arab Emirates said on Thursday it would treble the number of people the rulers would choose to vote for members of an advisory body that serves as a form of parliament.
Middle Eastern leaders also have tightened security.
Western powers have been caught in a dilemma between backing rulers whom they see as bulwarks against anti-Western Islamists and at the same time being seen to promote democracy.
In Bahrain, Saudi and Western officials fear majority rule could help their adversaries in Shi’ite-ruled Iran.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington supported “real, meaningful” change in Bahrain, which she called “a friend and ally,” and called on the government to show restraint. Reuters