Image: Suez Canal Company workers protesting
AP
Suez Canal Company workers began an open-ended strike in front of the company's headquarters in Ismailia City, Egypt, on Wednesday. The canal stayed open as everal hundred workers demonstrated, demanding the resignation of their immediate boss, a pay rise and social equality.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 2/9/2011 11:48:41 PM ET 2011-02-10T04:48:41

Thousands of state workers and impoverished Egyptians went on strike Wednesday after weeks of anti-government protests cast a spotlight on corruption and the wealth amassed by those in power in a country where almost half the people live near the poverty line.

The protests calling for President Hosni Mubarak's ouster have been spreading since Tuesday outside of Cairo's Tahrir Square, where they have been concentrated for the past week. On Wednesday, demonstrators also gathered at parliament, the Cabinet and the Health Ministry buildings, all a few blocks from the square. Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq was working out of the Civil Aviation Ministry on the other side of the city because his office was blocked by protesters.

President Barack Obama spoke to Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah on Wednesday about the political situation in Egypt, the White House said.

"The president emphasized the importance of taking immediate steps toward an orderly transition that is meaningful, lasting, legitimate, and responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people," the White House said in a statement.

"The president also reaffirmed the long-term commitment of the United States to peace and security in the region."

In Egypt for the first time, protesters were forcefully urging labor strikes despite a warning by Vice President Omar Suleiman that calls for civil disobedience are "very dangerous for society and we can't put up with this at all." His warnings Tuesday were taken by protesters as a thinly veiled threat of another crackdown.

Strikes erupted in a breadth of sectors — among railway and bus workers, state electricity staff and service technicians at the Suez Canal, in factories manufacturing textiles, steel and beverages and at least one hospital.

"They were motivated to strike when they heard about how many billions the Mubarak family was worth," said Kamal Abbas, a labor leader. "They said: 'How much longer should we be silent?'"

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Egyptians have been infuriated by newspaper reports that the Mubarak family has amassed billions, and perhaps tens of billions of dollars in wealth while, according to the World Bank, about 40 percent of the country's 80 million people live below or near the poverty line of $2 a day. The family's true net worth is not known.

"O Mubarak, tell us where you get $70 billion dollars," dozens of protesters chanted in front of the Health Ministry.

Growing labor unrest is adding a new dimension to the pressures for Mubarak to step down. The protesters filling streets of Cairo and other cities for the past 16 days have already posed the greatest challenge to the president's authoritarian rule since he came to power 30 years ago. They have wrought promises of sweeping concessions and reforms, a new Cabinet and a purge of the ruling party leadership.

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The labor strikes broke out across Egypt as many companies reopened for the first time since night curfews were imposed almost two weeks ago. Not all the strikers were responding directly to the protesters' calls. But the movement's success and its denunciations of the increasing poverty under Mubarak's rule resonated and reignited labor discontent that has broken out frequently in recent years.

In one of the flashpoints of unrest Wednesday, some 8,000 protesters, mainly farmers, set barricades of flaming palm trees in the southern province of Assiut. They blocked the main highway and railway to Cairo to complain of bread shortages. They then drove off the governor by pelting his van with stones.

Hundreds of slum dwellers in the Suez Canal city of Port Said set fire to part of the governor's headquarters in anger over lack of housing.

The farmers in Assiut voiced their support for the Tahrir movement, witnesses said, as did the Port Said protesters, who set up a tent camp in the city's main Martyrs Square similar to the Cairo camp.

In Cairo, hundreds of state electricity workers stood in front of the South Cairo Electricity company, demanding the ouster of its director. Public transport workers at five of the city's roughly 17 transport hubs also called strikes, demanding Mubarak's overthrow, and vowed that buses would be halted Thursday. It was not clear if they represented the entire bus system for this city of 18 million.

Dozens of state museum workers demanding higher wages staged a protest in front of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, crowding around antiquities chief Zahi Hawass when he came to talk to them.

Several hundred workers also demonstrated at a silk factory and a fuel coke plant in Cairo's industrial suburb of Helwan, demanding better pay and work conditions.

In the desert oasis town of Kharga, southwest of Cairo, five protesters have been killed in two days of rioting, security officials said. Police opened fire Tuesday on hundreds who set a courthouse on fire and attacked a police station, demanding the removal of the provincial security chief. The army was forced to secure several government buildings and prisons, and on Wednesday the security chief was dismissed, security officials said.

U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has said about 300 people have been killed since the protests began on Jan. 25, but it is still compiling a final toll.

In the city of Suez, strikes entered a second day on Wednesday. Some 5,000 workers at various state companies — including a textile workers, medicine bottle manufacturers, sanitation workers and a firm involved in repairs for ships on the Suez Canal — held separate strikes and protests at their factories.

Traffic at the Suez Canal, a vital international waterway that is a top revenue earner for Egypt, was not affected.

"We're not getting our rights," said Ahmed Tantawi, a public works employee in Suez. He said workers provide 24-hour service and are exposed to health risks but get only an extra $1.50 a month in hardship compensation. He said there are employees who have worked their entire lives in the department and will retire with a salary equivalent to $200 a month.

In Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the anti-government protests, at least 10,000 massed again on Wednesday, the day after a crowd of about a quarter-million proved that they had not lost momentum even as Mubarak clings to power. Visitors snapped pictures and took videos while vendors sold nuts, popcorn, Egyptian flags, sandwiches and drinks.

Nearby, 2,000 more protesters blocked off parliament, several blocks away, chanting slogans for it to be dissolved. A huge caricature of Mubarak hung on the gates of parliament while soldiers stationed on the grounds looked on.

Organizers called for a new "protest of millions" for Friday similar to those that have drawn the largest crowds so far. But in a change of tactic, they want to spread the protests out around different parts of Cairo instead of only in the downtown square where a permanent sit-in is now in its second week, said Khaled Abdel-Hamid, one of the youth organizers. 

A group called the April 6 Youth movement, which organized huge demonstrations in Tahrir Square on Tuesday via Facebook, sent a defiant response to Suleiman's assertion that the protests were "very dangerous."

In an e-mail to followers of its Facebook page the group said: "The methods of Omar Soleiman in dealing with the protesters has become unacceptable and as Egyptians won't accept anything but justice now.

"The statements made by Omar Soleiman, that he won't tolerate the presence of the protesters any more, and that he would not tolerate the continuation of such events, is a clear threat to the protesters in Tahrir Square, and we do not accept his threat, on the contrary, the demonstrators will continue and will not stop until we overthrow this tyrant regime."

Story: Mideast upheaval timeline

Efforts by Suleiman to open a dialogue with protesters over reforms have broken down since the weekend. Youth organizers refuse any talks unless Mubarak steps down first.

Showing growing impatience with the rejection, Suleiman told Egyptian newspaper editors late Tuesday that there could be a "coup" unless demonstrators agree to enter negotiations.

Although it was not completely clear what he meant by "coup," protesters heard it as a veiled threat to impose martial law.

"We can't bear this for a long time," Suleiman said of the protests. "There must be an end to this crisis as soon as possible." He said the regime wants to resolve the crisis through dialogue, warning: "We don't want to deal with Egyptian society with police tools."

Video: Caught between poverty and protest in Cairo (on this page)

Officials have made a series of pledges not to attack, harass or arrest the activists in recent days. But Suleiman's comments suggested that won't last forever.

"He is threatening to impose martial law, which means everybody in the square will be smashed," said Abdul-Rahman Samir, a spokesman for a coalition of the five main youth groups behind protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square. "But what would he do with the rest of the 70 million Egyptians who will follow us afterward."

Suleiman is creating "a disastrous scenario," Samir said. "We are striking and we will protest and we will not negotiate until Mubarak steps down. Whoever wants to threaten us, then let them do so," he added.

Do Egypt protests make al-Qaida 'irrelevant'?

Suleiman, a military man who was intelligence chief before being elevated to vice president amid the crisis, tried to explain the coup remark by saying:

"I mean a coup of the regime against itself, or a military coup or an absence of the system. Some force, whether its the army or police or the intelligence agency or the (opposition Muslim) Brotherhood or the youth themselves could carry out 'creative chaos' to end the regime and take power," he said.

Suleiman, a close confident of the president, rejected any "end to the regime" including an immediate departure for Mubarak, who says he will serve out the rest of his term until September elections. Suleiman reiterated his view that Egypt is not ready for democracy.

Suleiman suggested Egypt was not ready for democracy, and said a government-formed panel of judges, dominated by Mubarak loyalists, would push ahead with recommending its own constitutional amendments to be put to a referendum. Those statements further deepened skepticism over his intentions.

Still, authorities continued to try to project an image of normalcy. Egypt's most famous tourist attraction, the Pyramids of Giza, reopened to tourists on Wednesday after a 12-day closure. But few came to visit — tens of thousands of foreigners have fled Egypt amid the chaos, raising concerns about the economic impact of the protests. Also Mubarak met Wednesday with a Russian envoy.

Meanwhile, the newly appointed culture minister, Gabr Asfour, resigned his post for health reasons, according to government spokesman Magdy Rady.

Egypt's foreign minister on Wednesday rejected U.S. calls for the immediate repeal of its emergency law and said Washington seemed to be trying to impose its will on Cairo.

Asked whether he regarded the advice provided by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday as helpful, Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit told the PBS NewsHour program "not at all," according to an interview transcript provided by the U.S. TV broadcaster.

The Obama administration said Wednesday Egypt's government must do more to meet the demands of protesters.

"What you see happening on the streets of Cairo is not all that surprising when you see the lack of steps that their government has taken to meet their concerns," Robert Gibbs, a White House spokesman, told a daily news briefing.

Analysts at Credit Agricole bank estimate the crisis is costing Egypt $310 million a day.

The Associated Press, Reuters and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.

Video: Egypt revolt spreads to workforce

  1. Transcript of: Egypt revolt spreads to workforce

    WILLIAMS: Good evening.

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: Over the past 24 hours, we've seen some of the biggest crowds ever in that main square in Cairo . Tonight we're seeing something else. This people's revolt is spreading to other fronts in ways that will further pressure Egyptian authorities, and more pressure is being applied from the outside now on a regime that is still there, still in place and in charge. Again tonight to Cairo we go and our chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel . Richard , good evening.

    RICHARD ENGEL reporting: Good evening, Brian . A new group of Egyptians joined this movement today, government workers. A threat to a regime desperate to keep the economy going. The revolt is spreading to where Egypt could feel it most, its work force. For the first time there were dozens of spontaneous strikes across Egypt in at least 14 key industries, including oil and gas, electricity, and near the Suez Canal itself. At the oil ministry, hundreds protested against unfair wages and mismanagement. Hundreds more spilled outside Cairo 's electric company. They called President Mubarak a dictator. But the real anger was directed at their bosses, allowed to prosper in a corrupt system. When we arrived, we were surrounded as workers unleashed frustrations pent up for years.

    Unidentified Man #1:

    ENGEL: 'The manager only appoints members of his family,' a man screamed. 'Pay isn't enough, and it's delayed,' they complained. They say they are going on strike not only for democracy, but for basic workers' rights. Pressure is also mounting on Egypt 's Vice President Omar Suleiman , the former intelligence chief and a close ally of the United States . Almost daily he gets calls from Vice President Biden asking for, quote, "immediate, irreversible progress that responds to the aspirations of the Egyptian people ." The United States wants Egypt to stop arresting journalists and activists, immediately lift martial law, and widen negotiations to include more of the opposition. But pressure is also coming from Israel , Jordan , Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for Egypt to go slow, fearing a wave of instability across the Middle East that could benefit extremists. And then there's the protesters themselves, still defiant, past the point of no return .

    Unidentified Man #2:

    ENGEL: Many believe if they stop and the government stays, they'll be arrested or worse. So you think if you back down now there will be a crack...

    Unidentified Man #3: We will hang and be in jail. They assure us they will not penalize anybody who contribute to this revolution. Lots of lies.

    ENGEL: The government statements are having almost no impact on the demonstrators. They say they can't be tricked by promises of compromise or frightened away by threats.

    Unidentified Man #4: I don't think you can stand up towards the whole population of Egypt . It's pretty hard. The whole population of Egypt is against the regime. The revolution is here.

    ENGEL: More strikes are planned for tomorrow. Demonstrators are calling for millions to take to the streets on Friday. Demonstrators tonight, Brian , are already sending out text messages to organize for Friday's protests. They could be the biggest yet. Brian :

    WILLIAMS: All right, Richard Engel starting us off in Cairo again tonight. Richard , thanks.

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 (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

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    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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