Libya, Middle East rocked by protests

Protesters demanding sweeping political reforms took to the streets Wednesday as Egypt-inspired unrest spreads to other countries in North Africa and the Middle East.

Protesters' success in Egypt inspires crowds in Bahrain, Libya, Iran

Family members and supporters of Fadel al-Matrook, a protester who was killed Tuesday morning during police clashes in Bahrain, carry his coffin to the funeral in Manama on Wednesday. ((Reuters/Hamad I Mohammed ))

Protesters demanding sweeping political reforms took to the streets Wednesday as Egypt-inspired unrest spread to other countries in North Africa and the Middle East.

For the first time, Libya was rocked by protests, which began Tuesday and lasted until the early hours Wednesday in the port city of Benghazi.

Last Friday, former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak reluctantly stepped down after a historic 18-day wave of pro-democracy protests.

The outbreak of protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Iran has roiled the Middle East and brought unprecedented pressure on Libya's Maommar Gadhafi and other leaders who have held virtually unchecked power for decades.

In Benghazi, hundreds of demonstrators chanted, "No God but Allah, Moammar is the enemy of Allah" and "Down, down to corruption and to the corrupt."

Police and armed government backers quickly clamped down on the protesters, firing rubber bullets.

In Beyida, east of Benghazi, reports said hundreds of protesters set fire to police stations. 

"All the people of Beyida are out in the streets," said Rabie al-Messrati, a 25-year-old protester. 

State news agency ignores critics

Libya's official news agency did not carry any word of the anti-government protests.

Gadhafi, long reviled in the West, has been trying to bring his country out of isolation. 

In 2003, he announced he was abandoning his program for weapons of mass destruction, renouncing terrorism and compensating victims of the 1986 La Belle disco bombing in Berlin and the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland.

On Wednesday, Libyan state television started showing rallies in support of Gadhafi in Tripoli, the capital, as well as in Benghazi and other cities. Pro-government demonstrators accused the al-Jazeera news channel of broadcasting lies about their leader.

In Iran, protests arose at the funeral of a man who was killed Monday during an opposition rally. The government crushed the demonstration, which centred on the results of the presidential election in 2009.

Meanwhile, riot police in Bahrain's capital city of Manama used tear gas, rubber bullets and clubs to disperse anti-government protesters occupying the capital's main square before dawn on Thursday. Reuters reported at least two people had been killed. 

Earlier, security forces fired tear gas to break up the funeral of a 31-year-old man, Fadhel al-Matrook, which quickly turned political. Mourners chanted for the immediate resignation of Prime Minister Sheik Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa.

Al-Matrook was killed Tuesday as police tried to disperse people gathered for the funeral march of the first victim to die in the unrest. Both victims were Shias, feeding the resentment in a community that represents 70 per cent of Bahrain's 500,000 citizens but has long alleged systematic discrimination.

Deaths in Yemen

In Yemen, protests have been taking place for six straight days and nights, and most of the protesters clashing with government forces are young people, not members of established groups, freelance reporter Portia Walker told CBC News in an interview.

"The protests aren't just in the capital," she said. "They are in a number of cities all over the country, [like] Aden in the south. Some demonstrators have been killed and a number injured as clashes break out."

In Jordan, several dozen activists rallied outside King Abdullah II's palace Wednesday, appealing to the monarch for more far-reaching political reforms.

The king had largely stayed above the fray during six weeks of anti-government protests, and Wednesday's march marked the first time protesters took their grievances to the palace area.

Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the London School of Economics, said the spreading protests are a sign of the changing times.   

"Every single Middle Eastern dictator and regime is nervous today," he said in an interview. "I think they're sleepless, because the tide is so powerful." 

Although the Tunisian and Egyptian protests showed people throughout the Arab and Muslim world that change is possible, the odds are stacked against young men and women fighting for freedom in Iran and in Libya, Gerges said.

"But if you had asked me the same question a few weeks ago about Tunisia and Egypt, I would have said the odds were stacked against the protesters and the democrats."

With files from The Associated Press