Image: Wael Ghonim
Google
Wael Ghonim, a leading activist and Google's head of marketing for the Middle East and North Africa, reportedly was freed on Monday.
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President Hosni Mubarak's new cabinet on Monday held its first full meeting since an uprising started nearly two weeks ago, with no concrete progress in talks with Islamists and an opposition who demand his immediate exit.

But in a possible sign of progress, the regime reportedly released a Google executive who went missing when protests broke out.

Wael Ghonim says he was behind the Facebook page that helped spark what he called "the revolution of the youth of the Internet" two weeks ago. He went missing on Jan. 27, two days after the demonstrations began.

"This is the revolution of the youth of the Internet and now the revolution of all Egyptians," Ghonim said in a television interview where he wept as he described how he spent 12 days in detention blindfolded the entire time while his worried parents had no idea what had happened to him.

Ghonim, who has been one of the most prominent activists, is Google's head of marketing for the Middle East and North Africa. He was apparently circumventing a government shutdown of the Internet — a post on a Twitter account listed under his name said: "Very worried as it seems that government is planning a war crime tomorrow against people. We are all ready to die."

Government raises
In an attempt to defuse popular anger, the embattled regime announced a 15 percent increase in salaries and pensions.

The cabinet decision follows earlier promises to investigate election fraud and official corruption, which have done little to persuade the tens of thousands occupying downtown's Tahrir Square to end their two-week long protest.

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Newly appointed Finance Minister Samir Radwan says some 6.5 billion Egyptian pounds ($960 million) will be allocated to cover the increases, which will take effect in April for the 6 million people on public pay rolls.

In the past, public sector employees have been a pillar of support for the regime, but in recent years as prices have soared, their salaries have stagnated in value forcing the government to periodically announce raises to quell dissatisfaction.

"We don't trust him and he's a liar. He's made many promises in the past," said Salih Abdel-Aziz, an engineer with a public sector company, referring to the president. "He could raise it 65 percent and we wouldn't believe him. As long as Mubarak is in charge, then all of these are brittle decisions that can break at any moment."

Mubarak hangs on
Mubarak, 82, who has refused calls to end his 30-year-old presidency before September polls, has tried to focus on restoring order.

Protesters, barricaded in a tent camp in Tahrir in the heart of Cairo, have vowed to stay until Mubarak quits and hope to take their campaign to the streets with more mass demonstrations on Tuesday and Friday.

The banned Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement was among the groups that met Egyptian government officials at the weekend, a sign of how much has already changed in an uprising that has rocked the Arab world and alarmed Western powers.

Opposition figures reported little progress in the talks. While protesters want Mubarak to step down immediately, many worry that when he does leave, he will be replaced not with the democracy they seek but with another authoritarian ruler.

With a government pledged to reform, an opposition with limited political experience, a constitutional process that mitigates against haste, and a key strategic role, Egypt's next steps must be considered carefully, U.S. officials say.

The opposition has made big gains in the past two weeks.

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Mubarak has said he will not run again for president, his son has been ruled out as next in line, a vice president has been appointed for the first time in 30 years, the ruling party leadership has quit and the old cabinet was sacked.

Perhaps more important, protesters now take to the streets almost with impunity in the hundreds of thousands. Before January 25, a few hundred would have met a crushing police response in this U.S. ally whose army receives $1.3 billion in aid annually.

'Making progress'
President Barack Obama said Egypt is "making progress" toward a solution to the political crisis.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said later in the day that what the Egyptian people want most to see is the government taking concrete steps to bring about demanded changes, including the end of Mubarak's government, and free and fair elections.

He said "monumental change" already has taken place.

Under Egypt's constitution, Mubarak's resignation would trigger an election in 60 days. U.S. officials said that's not enough time to prepare.

"A question that that would pose is whether Egypt today is prepared to have a competitive, open election," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. "Given the recent past, where, quite honestly, elections were less than free and fair there's a lot of work that has to be done to get to a point where you can have free and fair elections."

"I think that would be a challenging undertaking," he said.

Appearing to soften her position for Mubarak to step down, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said her policy on Egypt looks "over the horizon" to its possible democratic future — a future that must be carefully planned.

As allies coalesced around the U.S. position, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert said it was clear that the Mubarak era was in its final phase and there would be other leaders.

"That is what's important for us, that this new direction is clear and irreversible," he said, adding: "It's not so important that individual people resign or whether there is a competition to have the quickest possible election."

Former Trade Minister Rachid Mohamed Rachid, sacked by Mubarak along with the rest of the cabinet, said: "I believe the presence of Mubarak in the next phase of transition for the next few months is very critical."

Slideshow: Egypt's Mubarak steps down (on this page)

Determined protesters in Tahrir Square were settling into a routine on Monday after a bloody revolt which the United Nations says may have cost 300 lives so far. Activists have called the uprising the "Nile Revolution."

Keen to get traffic moving around Tahrir Square, the army tried early on Monday to squeeze the area the protesters have occupied. Overnight campers rushed out of their tents to surround soldiers attempting to corral them into a smaller area.

Wary of the army's effort to gain ground to try and restore the traffic flow in central Cairo, dozens of protesters slept inside the tracks of the army vehicles. The powerful army's role in the next weeks is considered critical to the future of Egypt.

Video: Calm returns to Egypt, for now (on this page)

"The army is getting restless and so are the protesters. The army wants to squeeze us into a small circle in the middle of the square to get the traffic moving again," protester Mohamed Shalaby, 27, told Reuters by telephone.

Back to normal?
Egypt's government tried to get the country back to normal when the working week began on Sunday. Banks reopened after a week-long closure with lines of customers accessing accounts but hours, and withdrawals, were limited. Schools remained shut.

In another move to restore normality, authorities shortened the curfew, largely ignored by the hard-core protesters, to start at 8 p.m. and end at 6 a.m..

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Many Egyptians, including those who took part in nationwide demonstrations last week against Mubarak, are keen to get back to work and are worried about the effects of the crisis on stability, the economy and the important tourism sector.

Egypt's pound weakened to a six-year low on the second day of trade after a week-long closure. State-controlled banks seemed to be selling dollars to support the pound.

"Things are stable. I can't say they're good, but they're not collapsing," said a trader at a Cairo-based bank.

The bourse remained closed until Sunday because of the political turmoil and Egypt's central bank reduced the size of its Treasury bill offering, possibly out of concern that nervous investors would not buy the full amount.

Government ministers will hold their first full meeting at 2:00 p.m. (7 a.m. EST) since Mubarak reshuffled his cabinet on January 28 in an attempt to appease protesters enraged by years of corruption, economic hardship and political oppression.

Crackdown on journalists?
The Egyptian authorities continued to exert pressure on the news media amid efforts to regain a sense of normality.

The military detained a correspondent for Al-Jazeera's English-language news channel for seven hours in Cairo on Sunday, said the network, which has been targeted repeatedly throughout the unrest in Egypt.

Ayman Mohyeldin, an American citizen, was detained near Tahrir Square and released seven hours later, the channel said.

Pressure on news media covering the crisis intensified last week, as pro-government mobs armed with sticks attacked Egyptian and foreign journalists as well as human rights workers and others observing and recording the violent scenes.

Dozens have been detained, sometimes for several days. One journalist, an Egyptian reporter, has been killed in the protests, dying Friday of gunshot wounds.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Cairo protesters: 'We stay as long as Mubarak stays'

  1. Transcript of: Cairo protesters: 'We stay as long as Mubarak stays'

    WILLIAMS: Good evening.

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: Human Rights Watch now says 297 people have been killed in the fight for control of the streets, which is really a fight for the future of Egypt . While it's important for the protesters to keep up momentum, to stay angry, hold the world's attention, today both sides appeared to be in their own stalemate. The protesters have turned the main square into a quasi-permanent community, a village. And President Hosni Mubarak , despite everything being said about him, is still there, still in office in his job as president. We begin our coverage tonight once again with NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel in Cairo . Hey, Richard , good evening.

    RICHARD ENGEL reporting: Good evening, Brian . This is now a standoff over power, trust and pride. President Mubarak says he will not step down under pressure, and the protests say they won't go until he does. Tahrir Square is now a camp city. It's more like a sit-in than last week's violent revolution . The army's protective cordon remains around the square, but protesters worry the military will push them out, so they formed a human shield around the tanks to stop an advance.

    Unidentified Man: We will stay here to defend our revolution. We will stay here and sleep under this tank until Mubarak get out.

    ENGEL: These protesters fought to take this square. Today they held a mock funeral here for one of their martyrs. They won't give it up easily. At an aid station, volunteer doctors and nurses still treat the wounded, averaging one every five minutes. In a tent, a group of men offer me breakfast.

    Everyone shares here. They're united by a single goal: 'We won't leave unless Mubarak leaves. Enough of the oppression,' he said. While protesters are ready for a long standoff, the government is trying to undercut them by promising to implement nearly everything they've asked for. Yesterday the new vice president met opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood , which supports Islamic law . The government said it would eventually lift the decades-old martial law, allow more press freedom, and make elections democratic. But can the government be believed? And then there's President Mubarak . The government says he'll stay until the fall to finish out his term with dignity. But the biggest change in Cairo now is cars are out, banks are open, the government announced today state employees will even receive 15 percent raises. That's raises for five million people. Across Cairo , the city is starting to open up. But there's also a frustration here that the last two weeks of chaos have disrupted this country's economy, and a feeling that the protests have gone on long enough. In the main bazaar, Baha Sayed opened his small store today but only dusts off the souvenirs. No tourists, no business. Egyptians are now divided, with many wanting democracy but not unrest. In the square, the protesters say Egyptians shouldn't give up yet and must keep the pressure on or risk losing their revolution. The protesters tell us they're not stubborn, but they are skeptical because President Mubarak has made promises to do many of these reforms before, but not carried them out.

    Brian: Amazing to see the stores open, that's a start. They were all shuttered up when we were there last week. Richard Engel in Cairo , starting off our coverage again tonight. Richard , thanks.

    WILLIAMS:

Photos: Farewell Friday

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  1. Anti-government protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation in Cairo on Feb. 11. (Dylan Martinez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Egyptians set off fireworks as they celebrate in Cairo’s Tahrir Square after President Mubarak resigned and handed power to the military. (Khalil Hamra / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. President Barack Obama makes a statement on the resignation of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak in the Grand Foyer at the White House in Washington D.C. (Carolyn Kaster / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Egyptians celebrate in Tahrir Square after President Hosni Mubarak resigned and handed power to the military on Friday. Egypt exploded with joy, tears, and relief after pro-democracy protesters brought down President Hosni Mubarak with a momentous march on his palaces and state TV. Mubarak, who until the end seemed unable to grasp the depth of resentment over his three decades of authoritarian rule, finally resigned Friday. (Khalil Hamra / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Protesters walk over a barricade after it was taken down to allow free entry to hundreds of thousands of Egyptians in Tahrir Square in Cairo February 11, 2011. A furious wave of protest finally swept Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak from power, sending a warning to autocrats across the Arab world and beyond. (Yannis Behrakis / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A spokesman for Egypt's higher military council reads a statement titled “Communiqué No. 3” in this video still on Friday. Egypt's higher military council said it would announce measures for a transitional phase after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down. (Reuters Tv / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Egyptian celebrates in Cairo after the announcement of President Mubarak's resignation. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Mubarak's resignation in Cairo on Friday. A furious wave of protest finally swept Mubarak from power after 30 years of one-man rule, sparking jubilation in the streets. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. An Egyptian reacts in the street after President Hosni Mubarak resigned and handed power to the military in Cairo, Egypt, on Friday, Feb. 11. (Amr Nabil / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Thousands of Egyptian anti-government protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation on Friday. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Egyptian soldiers celebrate with anti-government protesters in Tahrir Square on Friday. Cairo's streets exploded in joy when Mubarak stepped down after three-decades of autocratic rule and handed power to a junta of senior military commanders. (Marco Longari / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Anti-government protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation in Cairo on Friday. (Dylan Martinez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Egyptians celebrate the news of Mubarak's resignation in Tahrir Square on Friday. (Tara Todras-whitehill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. An Egyptian woman cries as she celebrates the news of the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, who handed control of the country to the military, Friday night, in Tahrir Square, Cairo. (Tara Todras-whitehill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Egyptian anti-government protesters celebrate minutes after the announcement on television of the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Friday. Vice President Omar Suleiman announced that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had resigned. (Khaled Elfiqi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Opposition protesters celebrate Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak's resignation, in Tahrir Square on Friday. President Mubarak bowed to pressure from the street and resigned, handing power to the army. (Suhaib Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Anti-government protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Mubarak's resignation in Cairo on Friday. (Dylan Martinez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. On Egyptian state television, Al-Masriya, Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman delivers an address announcing that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has stepped down, in Cairo on Friday. (TV via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: Anti-government protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation in Cairo
    Dylan Martinez / Reuters
    Above: Slideshow (18) Egypt's Mubarak steps down - Farewell Friday
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    Slideshow (61) Egypt's Mubarak steps down - Week 3
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    Amr Nabil / AP
    Slideshow (93) Egypt's Mubarak steps down - Week 2
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    Slideshow (83) Egypt's Mubarak steps down - Week 1
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    Slideshow (17) Egypt's Mubarak steps down - World reacts

Explainer: On the ground in the Middle East

  • Since mid-December, the Arab world has been rocked by popular uprisings that led to the exile of the president of Tunisia and the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The Middle East – and the rest of the world – is watching to see if anger at authoritarian governments spreads and whether the region will be reshaped by the demands of ordinary citizens. Here is a look at the current political situation in countries in the region.

  • Algeria

    Image: Tunisian president Fouad Mebazaa
    FETHI BELAID  /  AFP - Getty Images
    Tunisian president Fouad Mebazaa

    Leader: President Abdelaziz Bouteflika

    Politics on the ground: Algeria is a Republic and multi-party state with a bicameral parliament. But shortly after independence in 1962 the country experienced a coup, and a long series of power plays that undermined the political process and sparked a militant Islamist insurgency. In the 1990s, terrorist violence in Algeria caused more than 150,000 deaths. President Bouteflika took office in 1999, and has been relected twice, albeit through flawed elections. He has vastly improved security in Algeria. But he also changed the constitution to eliminate term limits—a way to hold onto power until death. Political discontent, along with high unemployment and economic stagnation fueled recent unrest. Amid growing protest, Bouteflika vows that the country’s restrictive “state of emergency” dating to 1992 would be lifted in the “very near future.”

  • Bahrain

    Bahrain's King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa
    Khaled Desouki  /  AFP/Getty Images
    King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa
    msnbc.com

    Leader: Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, monarch since 1999

    Politics on the ground: Tens of thousands of protesters flood the capital, demonstrating against the monarchy as the king makes another concession — a promise to release some political prisoners. The Khalifa family has ruled since 1783 and Khalifa is set to be followed by his son, Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa. The government regularly cracks down on Shiite opposition groups, and youth in Shiite villages often clash with police. (Source: Reuters)

    U.S. interests: The Persian Gulf island nation provides a key naval base for the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. A 1991 agreement also grants U.S. forces access to Bahraini facilities during future crises and the ability to pre-position materials. Bahrain is also an important U.S. listening post for Iran.

    More details:  BBC

  • Egypt

    msnbc.com
    Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak looks o
    Khaled Desouki  /  AFP/Getty Images
    Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak

    Leader: President Hosni Mubarak

    Politics on the ground: Mubarak resigned as president and handed control to the military, bowing down after a historic 18-day wave of pro-democracy demonstrations by hundreds of thousands. Egypt's military rulers swear in a new Cabinet that replaces several Mubarak-era ministers.

    U.S. interests: An important military and security partner, a role that grew out of Egypt’s 1979 Peace Treaty with Israel. The U.S. provides massive military and economic aid. Egypt hosts military exercises and regular visits by the U.S. 6th fleet. It also controls the Suez Canal, a key conduit for military and trade vessels between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea.

    More informationCouncil on Foreign Relations

  • Iran

    msnbc.com
    Image: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
    Vahid Salemi  /  AP
    Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

    Leader: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, re-elected president in 2009

    Politics on the ground: Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei saluted an "Islamic liberation movement" in the Arab world and advised Egyptians to unite around their religion and against the West. Khamenei warned them against compromising with any leader who might win Western approval and called on Egypt's army to back the protesters and "focus its eyes on the Zionist enemy" Israel. Ahmadinejad has maintained political control with a crackdown on the opposition, which took to the streets to challenge his 2009 re-election.(Source: Reuters, BBC and AP)

    U.S. interests: Iran is notable for its large size and population, central location in the region and large oil reserves. U.S.-Iran ties have been rocky since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which ousted Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, then the strongest U.S. ally in the region. The ensuing hostage crisis — in which U.S. diplomats were held by radical Islamic students -- led to a break in diplomatic relations, which have not been restored. U.S. and many allies maintain economic sanctions on Iran for sponsorship of terrorism, nuclear weapons ambitions and human rights abuses, all accusations that Iran denies. Iran does not recognize Israel’s right to exist, and the tension between Iran and Israel is a threat to regional stability.

    More information:  BBC

  • Iraq

    Image: File photo of Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki speaking during a news conference in Baghdad
    Thaier Al-sudani  /  Reuters
    Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki
    msnbc.com

    Leader: Nuri al-Maliki, prime minister since 2006

    Politics on the ground: Maliki struggled to control a fractious government forged of fragile alliances. But in the last two years he has emerged stronger after sending the army to fight Shiite militias and presiding over a sharp fall in overall violence. Still, Maliki has turned many former allies into foes. He bristled at criticism in 2007 from U.S. lawmakers and has difficult relations with some U.S. military officials in Iraq. He harbors evident hatred of the Saddam regime, which repressed Iraq's Shiite majority and assassinated many of his political colleagues. Many Sunnis fear Maliki has little interest in giving them a fair share of power.
    (Source: Reuters)

    U.S. interests: Eight years after the start of the Iraq war, the United States still has about 50,000 troops in the country assigned to non-combat operations, with plans to remove them by December 2011. U.S. and Iraqi forces have made strides against al-Qaida in Iraq, and the U.S. also has an interest in countering the influence of Iran.

    More information:  Reuters

  • Israel

    msnbc.com
    Image: Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem
    Pool  /  Reuters
    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

    Leader: Benjamin Netayahu, second term as prime minister since 2009

    Politics on the ground: The tumult in Egypt has plunged Israel into dismay, arousing fears that Islamic radicals, backed by Iran, are about to score another victory, as Hezbollah has done in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza — even though the anti-government protesters in Egypt are led by secular activists. Until the picture clears, Netanyahu is unlikely to rush into a deal with the Palestinians that creates even more uncertainty on his doorstep by turning over territory to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. (Source: AP)

    U.S. interests: Much of the anti-American feeling in the Mideast stems from the United States’ long-standing “special relationship” with Israel, which receives about $3 billion a year in U.S. assistance. President Obama has said that Arab-Israeli peace is a “vital national security interest” to the United States.

    More information: BBC

  • Jordan

    msnbc.com
    Image: Jordan's King Abdullah speaks at the opening of the first session of the new parliament in Amman
    Ali Jarekji  /  Reuters
    King Abdullah

    Leader: King Abdullah II, monarch since 1999

    Politics on the ground: Jordan's powerful Muslim Brotherhood vowed to resume protests, saying that the government did not keep a promise of speedy reforms. The announcement puts added pressure on Jordan's King Abdullah II to give up some of his sweeping powers, but is not seen as a threat to his rule. Opposition figures have called on the king to surrender the authority to appoint Cabinets and dissolve parliament. (Source: AP)

    U.S. interests: The government of Jordan has been consistently pro-Western with close ties to the United States. Since the 2003 fall of the Iraqi regime, Jordan aided the U.S. effort to restore stability there by allowing the training of more than 50,000 Iraqi police officers in a facility near Amman. In 1994, Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel, and is engaged in talks on a wide range of issues, including water sharing, finance and security.

    More information:  Council on Foreign Relations

  • Kuwait

    TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY OMAR HASAN (FIL
    Yasser Al-zayyat  /  AFP/Getty Images
    Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah
    msnbc.com

    Leader: Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, emir since 2006

    Politics on the ground: The ruling family is struggling to keep balance among the Islamist, tribal and liberal members of the National Assembly. Kuwait is home to the region's most outspoken parliament. Recently, the competition between the executive and legislative branches of government has become more pronounced: Five governments have resigned, a sixth underwent a major reshuffle and the dissolution of parliament has become a regular feature of the political scene. However, Kuwaitis, which represent a third of the population, are loyal to the 255-year-old Sabah dynasty.  (Source: Reuters and Jane’s Information Group)

    U.S. interests: The United States went to war in the Gulf in 1991 after Iraq seized Kuwait. The U.S.-Kuwaiti relationship has remained strong since then, and Kuwait was the main staging area for U.S. troops before the start of the Iraq war in 2003. The U.S. maintains troops at Camp Arifjan south of Kuwait City.

    More information:  Jane’s Information Group

  • Lebanon

    msnbc.com
    Image: Arab Thought Foundation FIKR 9 conference in Beirut
    Wael Hamzeh  /  EPA
    President Michel Suleiman

    Leader: Gen. Michel Suleiman, president since May 2008

    Politics on the ground: Lebanon’s political landscape is divided between the Western-backed government and the Hezbollah-led opposition, which receives support from Iran and Syria. The U.S. considers Hezbollah, a Pro-Syrian Shiite political party, to be a terrorist organization. Lebanon has struggled to stay stable, particularly after a 2006 war with Israel. In January, Hezbollah forced the collapse of the government and had its nominee, Najib Mikati, appointed as prime minister to form the next government. (Source: BBC)

    U.S. interests: With the collapse of a coalition government in January, the United States is concerned about the rise of Hezbollah and resurgent Syrian influence.

    More information: Council on Foreign Relations

  • Libya

    Image: Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi attends a ceremony marking the birth of the Prophet Mohammed in Tripoli
    Ismail Zitouny  /  Reuters
    Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi

    Leader: Moammar Gadhafi (de facto head of state)

    Politics on the ground: Moammar Gadhafi seized power by coup in 1967, supplanting a Western-backed constitutional monarchy, and proclaiming the new Libyan Arab Republic. Although Gadhafi gave up formal leadership titles — the official press refers to him as "Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution" — he is said to wield almost complete authority, either directly or through manipulation of Libya’s socialist-style committees. The government controls the media and the judiciary and there is no right to a fair public trial. Political parties and trade unions are banned. Freedom of speech, press, assembly, association and religion are restricted. Although oil revenues and a small population give Libya one of the highest per capita GDPs in Africa, the government's mismanagement of the economy has led to high inflation and increased import prices, fueling discontent.

    U.S. interests: Since the 1990s, Libya has been changing from a U.S. adversary on the Mediterranean Basin — subject to international sanctions — to a potential partner in counterterror, nuclear nonproliferation and energy development. After the 9/11 attacks on the United States, the warming trend has accelerated. Gadhafi — who has also been a target for Islamist extremists — rushed to become a partner in the U.S. war on terrorism, and distanced Libya from its own past as a sponsor of such acts of political violence. Libya also renounced its pursuit of nuclear weapons, leading the U.S. to restore diplomatic ties. Libya has nearly 44 billion barrels in proven oil reserves, and probably much more. Since U.S. and U.N. sanctions were lifted, major oil companies from the U.S. and elsewhere have started investing in the sector.

  • Morocco

    Image: Morocco's King Mohammed VI presides a a
    Azzouz Boukalouch  /  AFP - Getty Images
    King Mohammed VI

    Leader: King Mohammed IV

    Politics on the ground: Morocco is a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament. The monarch holds vast executive powers, including the ability to dissolve parliament at will. Executive power is exercised by the government but more importantly by the king himself. Legislative power is vested in both the government and the two chambers of parliament. The king can also issue decrees that have the force of law. The current monarch, King Mohammed IV, 47, succeeded his father King Hassan, who died in 1999 after 38 years on the throne.

    U.S. Interests: One of the oldest and closest U.S. allies in the region and a moderate Arab state in a strategic location between northern Africa and Europe. Morocco was quick to condemn the Sept. 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States has been a solid ally in counterterror efforts.

  • Oman

    msnbc.com
    Image: Oman's leader Sultan Qaboos bin Said sal
    Mohammed Mahjoub  /  AFP - Getty Images
    Sultan Qaboos bin Said

    Leader: Qaboos bin Said, monarch since 1970

    Politics on the ground: Qaboos has absolute power and appoints the Cabinet. In 1992, Qaboos allowed a parliament called Majlis Shura, whose 84 members are elected by constituents in 61 districts. But the parliament only advises and has no legislative powers. There is concern about succession, as there is no heir apparent. In January, protesters marched in Muscat asking the government to stop corruption and address rising prices. Young Omanis called for political change. (Source: Reuters and The New York Times)

    U.S. interests: Since 1980, the United States has had access to Omani military facilities.

    More details: BBC

  • Palestinian territories

    msnbc.com
    Image:
    Muhammed Muheisen  /  AP
    President Mahmoud Abbas

    Leader: Mahmoud Abbas

    Politics on the ground: Tension is high between the two Palestinian factions, Abbas’ Fatah party and the militant Islamic movement Hamas. Abbas is seen as a moderate who has attempted to resurrect peace talks with Israel, while Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, has continued its campaign of anti-Israeli attacks. Israel in turn maintains a land, air and sea blockade of Gaza. (Source: BBC)

    U.S. Interests: The United States has tried several times to broker peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and has provided support to the Palestinian Authority for security and counterterrorism efforts.

    More information: Council on Foreign Relations

  • Qatar

    Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al-
    Atta Kenare  /  AFP/Getty Images
    Emir Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani
    msnbc.com

    Leader: Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, emir since 1995

    Politics on the ground: Domestic reform has been Sheikh Hamad's most noticeable weak point, and it is too soon to tell if his son, Tamim, heir apparent, will tackle this issue. Parliamentary elections have been continually postponed as the ruling family has refused to give up its monopoly on power. Qatar’s 2005 constitution allows for only a partly elected parliament. The Al-Jazeera satellite TV station is based in Qatar and considered the most free and unfettered broadcast source in the Arab world. In practice, however, it rarely criticizes the ruling  family. (Source: Reuters)

    U.S. interests: The United States uses Al-Udeid Air Base, south of Doha, as headquarters for its air operations in the Middle East.

    More information:U.S. Department of State

  • Saudi Arabia

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    Image: (FILES) A picture taken on December 14,
    Yasser Al-zayyat  /  AFP - Getty Images
    King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz

    Leader: Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz, monarch since 2005

    Politics on the ground: The king, convalescing in Morocco, expressed support for Mubarak after the protests began. But Saudi newspapers have toned down the king's support of Mubarak after it became clear his grip on power was looking shaky. The world's largest oil exporter, which plays a pivotal role as banker for the Arab world and steward of Islam's holy sites, is coming under greater scrutiny since granting refuge to Tunisia's ousted ruler Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. (Source: The Associated Press)

    U.S. interests: Saudi Arabia is an ally of the United States, and the U.S. has relied on it as a force for stability in the region. The United States also considers it a partner in the war on terrorism, although Saudi Arabia has been accused of funding militant groups; the nations’ relationship was strained during the investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks. Saudi Arabia is a leading supplier of oil for the United States.

    More details: New York Times

  • Syria

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    Image: Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks to the media after a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris
    Benoit Tessier  /  Reuters
    President Bashar al-Assad

    Leader: Bashar al-Assad, president since 2000

    Politics on the ground: Syrians are organizing campaigns on Facebook and Twitter that call for a "day of rage" in Damascus on Feb. 4 and 5, taking inspiration from Egypt and Tunisia. Like both nations, Syria suffers from corruption, poverty and unemployment. The nation has seen subsidy cuts for staples like bread and oil. The authoritarian president has resisted calls for political freedoms and jailed critics of his regime. He is seen by many Arabs, however, as one of the few leaders in the region willing to stand up to arch enemy Israel. (Source: AP)

    U.S. interests: Relations with the U.S. remain cool, with American officials concerned about Syrian interference in Lebanon’s affairs, human rights violations and its alleged pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.

    More details: New York Times

  • Tunisia

    Leader: Fouad Mebazaa, interim president

    Politics on the ground: Tunisia is a constitutional republic, with a president serving as chief of state, prime minister as head of government, a bicameral legislature and a court system influenced by French civil law. While Tunisia is formally a democracy with a multiparty system, the secular Constitutional Democratic Rally, or RCD, has controlled the country as one of the most repressive regimes in the Arab World since its independence in 1956.

    The 2009 elections, in which the RCD captured the most seats, were widely regarded as rigged and contributed to the unrest that ultimately forced President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to give up power and flee the country. The Ministry of Interior officially announced the dissolution of the party on Feb 7. An interim government led by President Fouad Mebazaa is in place.

    U.S. interests: Tunisia is an active military and security partner with the U.S. It is a voice of moderation and realism in the region, and was among the first Arab nations to call for recognition of Israel.

  • United Arab Emirates

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    Image: Gulf Cooperation Council opens its 31st summit in UAE
    Emirates News Agency/handout  /  EPA
    President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan

    Leader: Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan, president since 2004

    Politics on the ground: Sheikh Khalifa, also the ruler of oil-rich Abu Dhabi, seat of the seven-emirate federation, is the second leader of the U.S.-allied Gulf state since it was founded in 1971. There are no organized opposition movements in the UAE, which censors many political Web sites and has cracked down on small attempts to protest this month against fuel subsidy cuts. Analysts and diplomats say Sheikh Khalifa has appeared more frail in public of late. (Source: Reuters)

    More details: New York Times

  • Yemen

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    Image: Yemen's President Saleh reviews an honour guard at the Presidential Palace
    Khaled Abdullah  /  Reuters
    President Ali Abdullah Saleh

    Leader: Ali Abdullah Saleh, president since 1978

    Politics on the ground: Saleh pledged not to seek another term in office in an apparent attempt to defuse protests inspired by Tunisia's revolt and the turmoil in Egypt. The impoverished country is wrestling with rebellion in the north and a secessionist movement in the south. Saleh's move posed questions about stability in a nation seen by the Obama administration as a key ally in its fight against Islamic militants.  (Source: AP, Reuters)

    U.S. interests: Yemen’s government is a U.S. partner in counterterrorism, aiding military, diplomatic and financial actions to thwart terror groups. The U.S. and Yemen are waging a battle with an al-Qaida offshoot group in Yemen, which U.S. officials say has become a serious threat to the U.S.

    More details: New York Times ; BBC

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