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Arab unrest: 5 eyewitnesses to history

By Christina Zdanowicz, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • People who were part of -- or observed -- the protests share their perspectives
  • Jobs, education and corruption were some of the issues named as primary causes
  • Most have seen their daily lives changed since the demonstrations began

(CNN) -- Leading his children through the crowd, a Libyan man walks past armored vehicles and tanks perched in front of Benghazi's courthouse. He proudly presses on, wanting to show his children a new day.

A moment later, soldiers fire a spray of bullets and tear gas, choking out the startled crowd. Terror paints his children's faces.

"We thought it was going to be peaceful, but then it turned ugly," remembered the Benghazi man, who asked not to be identified. "Thankfully, nothing happened. We didn't expect this."

He is just one of many who've witnessed fear and hope, violence and calm, doubt and determination over the last few weeks, as protests sweep through the Middle East and North Africa and change daily lives.

Here are five of their stories.

LIBYA: 'The fear wall broke'

Born and raised in Libya, the man in his 40s says this is the first protest he's ever seen in his native land. With no freedom of speech, no one ever dared to utter an ill word about the government or its powerful leader, Moammar Gadhafi, lest they risk jail time, he said.

But with Friday's protests, violent clashes and dozens of deaths, something changed.

"We can speak now," he marveled from a noisy street near the protest's epicenter. "The fear wall broke. Even after the killing, nobody is getting scared. Their numbers are increasing."

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Freedom of speech, the right to own land, and a good education are among the things this man is fighting for. He believes democracy is the solution. He dreams of his children getting a solid education and not having to live in a closed society as he did.

Internet access has been cut off in Libya, so word of mouth has been crucial in connecting the people, he said. Multiple friends had called to let him know about protests. "Libya is very strong socially. Most people know each other. I think they're united by the calls," he said.

His yearning for Libya is what brought him back to his home last year. He had been living in Canada for 15 years while he worked and earned a Ph.D.

He's proud to be there for the time of change. "We are fortunate to have this happening when we are here. Everyone in Libya and all the Libyans outside are dying to come here but they can't," he said.

He thanks other recent revolutions for the opportunity to see that change.

"I think the driving force is what happened in Tunisia and Egypt. Because of that fear, that wall, we felt that we couldn't do anything. After we saw Tunisia and Egypt, we thought that we can do it too. Tunisia and Egypt give us hope."

TUNISIA: 'I hope that nothing will be forgotten'

Walking the streets of Tunis, Hager Ben Mahmoud sees open stores, working people and streets free of shouting protesters and burning cars. Few signs remain of the unrest of last month's protests.

"The only sign that there was a revolution is that Ben Ali's pictures are not all over the place," she said. "You hear of carjacking and of theft, which is a new thing in Tunisia. People don't carjack."

Only three weeks ago, the landscape in her neighborhood was vastly different. One of her friends was hit with a rock while they were walking. She saw a stranger get hit by a car another day. A couple of her cousins participated in the protests and say they were tear-gassed.

"We all have friends or co-workers who went to the protests," said Ben Mahmoud, 34, who only observed the events. "Some saw violence, some saw nothing. Experiences varied from one person to another depending on where and when."

iReport: More photos from Hager Ben Mahmoud

Ben Mahmoud, who was born in Tunisia but has lived all over Europe and in the U.S., moved back to her home five years ago. She recognizes that she witnessed history unfold in her country. Some protesters, she feels, saw it as a "now or never situation" to get what they wanted.

"People protested because they wanted to be freer in a way and they wanted jobs, less corruption," she said. "They did not start because they wanted freedom of expression; they started because people wanted jobs."

While some rallied for change, others suggested sacrificing a day a week of paid wages to help fund the state, she said. She also heard about a company that did away with overtime so it could keep more employees on the payroll.

One of the biggest challenges for Tunisia will be to learn how to act like a real democracy, she said. People don't quite realize the effects of what they are doing in this "complicated and chaotic" time.

"We don't know what a democracy is and how to behave so far as asking for a raise, or your right, or having the political maturity for knowing what a democracy is -- it's about knowing what's best for everyone."

In this time of growth and change, Ben Mahmoud hopes for normalcy in the coming year. She hopes for people to find and retain jobs. She hopes for free elections in July.

But most of all, she said, "I hope that nothing will be forgotten."

EGYPT: 'The fate of the country is in our hands'

Omar Sultan and hundreds of fellow Egyptians of all ages erupted with chants and cheers on a packed street near the presidential palace when President Hosni Mubarak stepped down on February 11.

"I've never been prouder to be an Egyptian," the 25-year-old told CNN iReport that day.

"I was so happy. It's been 18 days of protests and unrest. When you finally get what you've been asking for, it's amazing," he reminisced last week.

iReport: Celebration video from Omar Sultan

Mubarak's Egypt is the only one Sultan has ever known. Sultan's generation is used to stability, but the youth is looking for a new Egypt, he said.

"We need to change and start moving our country to become better, to better understand politics," he said. "It's the behavior of the people that will define the coming period in this country. We are now free. The fate of the country is in our hands."

Sultan participated in several of the protests in Tahrir Square in the days preceding Mubarak's ouster, most of the time chanting and singing the national anthem. He and his friends heard about the gatherings on Facebook.

Even though he was singing for change in the streets, his daily life was suffering.

"Basically we couldn't do anything," he said. "Everything was shut down. We had a week with no internet. Work was suspended with military curfew at 3 p.m. We barely had enough time to do anything outside. I spent a lot of time staying at home doing absolutely nothing."

When the curfew lifted and people streamed back to work, Sultan noticed some life hadn't resumed. Banks were slow to open and the stock market remained uncertain.

"The protests did have a downside in terms of economic downfall, businesses closed for such a long time, but I think it's a price everyone had to pay to be a democratic country," he said.

Sultan will never forget how protesters carried on without violence when police gunfire broke out at protests on January 28. The protesters could have fought back, but they didn't.

"It felt like we were asking for a change, trying to do something different and in a peaceful manner, nothing violent," he said.

"It just seems good to witness history like this," he said. "You don't usually get the chance to see something happen in front of you. This defining moment, usually you read it in history books instead. Very rarely do you get to be a part of it."

YEMEN: 'Waiting for a change'

Mohammed Bahashwan sees crowds of young protesters shouting for jobs, education and less corruption in Yemen. But there's one thing the 23-year-old doesn't see: organization.

Bahashwan joined two of the peaceful protests last week in Sanaa, Yemen, but he fears the demonstrations may go unnoticed as there's no unified front.

"The government isn't seeing it. We shouldn't be doing it blindly; it needs to be organized somehow," he said. "We have a united cause and we go for it. I would love to go and organize but I don't know if anyone would listen."

Bahashwan says he's been using his Facebook page to voice his ideas for a united cause. He's never protested before, let alone tried to organize one.

"The side which I am on is against the corruption," he said. "Most of the people aren't asking the president to step down; they're asking the leaders to negotiate with the people."

While he doesn't think President Ali Abdullah Saleh should leave, he hopes the protests will bring attention to solving Yemen's education, health care and income woes, he said. Bahashwan holds education near to his heart, as he's an English teacher.

As he shouted for an end to corruption, Bahashwan was awestruck by the number of women who were also protesting alongside him. He hadn't seen women protest much in the past. Even his 19-year-old sister joined the cause.

"I saw a lot of women shouting," he said. "They really needed freedom and right. That was quite profound."

Bahashwan finds himself glued to the TV, waiting to see the latest developments and how they will change the game in Yemen.

"At work, school and at home, we are waiting for a change," he said. "We saw what's happening in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain. We're really worried about complications and what's happening nowadays. We're worried a war might show up."

iReport: Are you there? Share photos, video

BAHRAIN: 'My neighborhood turned into a war zone'

At 3:15 a.m. Friday, loud bangs outside his luxury apartment roused Greg Kramer from his slumber in Manama, Bahrain. He trudged to the balcony and saw riot police shooting tear gas and rubber bullets into the throngs of protesters at Pearl Roundabout.

"My neighborhood turned into a war zone the next day," he said. "There was glass on everything. The entire neighborhood was enclosed with barbed wire. Tanks were parked all over. It was quite intense."

iReport: More photos from Greg Kramer

The American citizen, who has been living in Manama for the better part of a year, evacuated to a hotel in suburban Juffair for three days before returning to his apartment in the city.

As a newcomer to Bahrain, Kramer is observing the protests, but he can't pin down what they're all about. "I'm not really sure what the people want," he said.

"It's unfortunate," he said. "I understand they want more representation and I understand their reasoning, but it's sad what it will do to this place. I'd be interested to see what it will be like in a year's time."

He's saddened to see the negative economic effects the protests have had on the country. Countless businesses, restaurants and malls have closed for the time being, mostly in areas with high levels of protest activity.

The Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix, which was slated to begin March 13, has been canceled, which could cost the country hundreds of millions of dollars, according to The Times of London.

Despite the turmoil, Kramer, 25, says he doesn't plan on leaving Bahrain any time soon. He's supposed to continue working at a publishing and consulting group for another year.

"I love this country. It's my home," he said. "To watch Bahrainis attack other Bahrainis hurts me. I think everyone wants to see some sort of resolution, some sort of conclusion to what's happening. It is not in the best interest of anyone that is living in Bahrain for this to continue."

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