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Is The Tide Turning Against Arab Freedom?

Posted on 22 April 2011 by hashimilion

Is a counter-revolutionary tide beginning to favour the “strongmen” of the Arab world, whose regimes appeared a couple of months ago to be faltering under the impact of the Arab Awakening?

From Libya to Bahrain and Syria to Yemen, leaders are clinging on to power despite intense pressure from pro-democracy protesters. And the counter-revolution has so far had one undoubted success: the Bahraini monarchy, backed by troops from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, has brutally but effectively crushed the protesters in the island kingdom. Pro-democracy leaders are in jail or have fled abroad. The majority Shia population is being terrorised by arbitrary arrests, torture, killings, disappearances, sackings, and the destruction of its mosques and religious places.

In three other countries despots under heavy assault have varying chances of survival. A month ago in Yemen it seemed likely that President Ali Abdullah Saleh was on his way out, but he still has not gone and has mobilised his own demonstrators, gunmen and security forces. Nevertheless the army has publicly split and the probability is that he will finally depart.

In Syria protests are continuing across the country despite frequent shootings, but President Bashar al-Assad will take a lot of displacing because of his determination to stay, the strength of his security apparatus and the tight grip on power of the minority Allawi community.

In Libya Muammar Gaddafi teetered on the verge of defeat two months ago when rebels had seized the east of the country and there were demonstrations in Tripoli. Since then he has rallied a core of support and the rebels in Benghazi would collapse if they did not have the backing of Nato airpower. Nevertheless he is likely to go simply because Britain, France and the US are committed to his departure.

All this is very different from what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, where the military and political establishments believed they could get rid of the regime but keep the rest of the state intact. This could not be done in Libya or Syria because the regime and the state are too intertwined.

In Yemen the state is too weak to get rid of the leader, while in Bahrain democracy means a revolutionary transfer of power from the minority Sunni to the majority Shia. The counter-revolution has other advantages. Its leaders are no longer being caught by surprise. Defenders of the status quo no longer think their defeat is inevitable and have recovered their nerve. They can draw on the loyalty and self-interest of state employees and on sectarian allegiances.

The attitude of outside powers to the overthrow of the status quo differs from country to country. The US was in two minds over support for Mr Mubarak, but did not condemn the Saudi armed intervention in Bahrain or the subsequent terrorising of the Bahraini Shia. Washington has a very different attitude to Arab autocracies in North Africa and far more strategically important Gulf oil states allied to the US. Unspoken also as a factor in US thinking is the degree to which revolution or counter-revolution will help or hinder America’s traditional enemy in Iran.

Only in Libya has the struggle between rebellion and the state turned into outright war. The rebels have plenty of support, but they still only control a quarter of the population and they remain militarily weak. Their most important card is Nato air strikes and even these have not enabled the anti-Gaddafi forces to advance beyond Ajdabiya or break the siege of Misrata.

The counter-revolution is showing that it has more going for it than seemed likely two months ago. This only appears surprising because well-established authoritarian regimes went down so swiftly in Tunisia and Egypt. Police states have had time to rally their formidable forces of repression, but even this may not be enough to quell newly politicised populations which believe they can end autocratic rule.

By Patrick Cockburn

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Why The West’s Silence on Bahrain Risks a Full-Blown Sectarian Conflict

Posted on 19 April 2011 by hashimilion

Today: It’s hard not to see a double standard in the West’s responses to the Arab Spring.

Western governments have had no problem in calling for Muammar Gaddafi to go. They have condemned Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen for firing on protesters, detention without trial and the usual responses of repressive regimes.

But on the topic of the equally repressive Khalifa family in Bahrain, diplomats of all stripes have been much more restrained.

Meanwhile, the Saudis have sent 1,000 troops to its neighbour to help put down the “coup” — what anyone else would call peaceful protests. Bahraini activists risk being arrested or threatened. Last week a fourth detainee died in police custody in less than two weeks. Witnesses said his body, like the others, bore signs of abuse.

The strategy of inertia could well blow up in the West’s face. The protesters in Bahrain are mainly Shiites, who form the majority of the population; the rulers are Sunni.

Shiite Iran next door is the wild card. No one can predict how the ayatollahs will respond. They are already suspected of covert meddling and it’s hard to imagine they will sit by while their co-religionists are massacred.

At the British newspaper The Guardian, Madeleine Bunting attributes the West’s silence in part to Britain’s relationship with the ruling Bahraini family.

“It has been one of the most successful chapters in British imperial domination; the Al Khalifa dynasty signed its first treaty with the British in 1820 and they finally ‘left’ in 1971. The British have backed a repressive regime in a very cosy, mutually advantageous relationship of finance, military training, arms deals and royal ceremony (one of the less edifying aspects of the imperial endgame has been the use of the royal family to flatter and seduce client regimes, however unpalatable). In the last few months the Bahrain government has beaten, killed, tortured the Shia protest movement …The west has done little but mumble incoherently; too many interests are at stake to live up to the grand moral rhetoric now being lavished on Libya.”
In an interview with the Iranian-owned Press TV, Christopher Walker, a former Moscow and Middle East correspondent of the London Times, has no problem in connecting the dots.

“The fact is that Bahrain is the regional base of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, and the U.S. Fifth Fleet is its major strategic arm in the Middle East. Although it is based in Bahrain, it is crucial to the current Washington policy in the region. So they are very worried that if something was to happen in Bahrain of deep instability, that Fleet would lose its base. That is really the guiding force …
[Covering] Bahrain has not frankly been of the Western media’s interest. You can see a conspiracy behind it if you want. It was the West’s interest not to encourage the downfall of the ruling Khalifa family in Bahrain. Bahrain is also a much easier place for the authorities to restrict press coverage. In Libya, for instance, when journalists could not get in, because Gaddafi did not at that time allow them, they just drove into the East or got there another way. But in Bahrain, they have to go via the airport and they are just not given visas.”
To have different levels of tolerance for different despots raises awkward questions, says The Observer in an editorial.

“One obvious lesson for the west from recent upheaval in the Middle East is that propping up authoritarian regimes on the grounds that they make stable allies is a terrible policy.
The stability procured by despotism is an illusion. Brittle police states can contain, but never satisfy, a captive people’s appetite for better lives. Eventually, they shatter and the more rigid the apparatus of repression, the more explosive the change when it comes.
That has been demonstrated clearly enough in North Africa and yet the west struggles to apply the lesson to the Arabian Peninsula. The contagious spirit of democratic springtime that provoked protests in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya also reached Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia. But there the west has been markedly less inclined to cheer it on.”
At the Christian Science Monitor, Kristen Chick explains why the U.S.’s silence could backfire:

“While the U.S. stance is generally attributed to an attempt to protect regional interests, the festering situation in Bahrain is actually increasing Iran’s opportunity for influence in the region and widening rifts between Arab nations – neither of which are in the interest of the U.S. … the U.S. failure to condemn human rights abuses committed by the Bahraini security forces while condemning such abuses in Libya and Syria is undermining any credibility it had with Bahrainis. If Saudi and the U.S had hoped to curtail Iran’s influence through Bahrain, they may have instead given it an opening …
Indeed, the situation in Bahrain has given Iran repeated opportunities to publicly criticize the oppression of Shiites and criticize Bahrain.”

By Araminta Wordsworth

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The Arab Spring and the Saudi Counter-Revolution

Posted on 18 April 2011 by hashimilion

We return from a recent trip to the region persuaded that the main question engaging people with respect to the “Arab spring” is no longer “who’s next,” but rather “how far will Saudi Arabia go in pushing a counter-revolutionary agenda” across the Middle East? Whether Saudi Arabia is really capable of coping with the momentous changes going on in the region — not just with respect to demands for political change in a number of Arab states, but geopolitically, as well — is a truly profound and important question. To unpack this, it is helpful to take a historical perspective on Saudi Arabia and its traditional national security strategy.

Unlike Iran and Turkey, many Arab states are not, within their current boundaries, “natural” states. Most, in fact, are the creations of colonial powers, at least within their present borders — e.g., Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the smaller GCC states all fit this bill.

Saudi Arabia, like Egypt, is an important exception to this generalization. But, in contrast to Egypt, Saudi Arabia is not a historically “natural” state. The Saudi state was definitely created — but by indigenous actors, not outsiders.

Saudi Arabia is the product of hard-fought tribal wars and alliances, legitimated by an indigenously generated ideology — that is, the particular form of Islam that has been championed by the al-Saud since the mid-18th century, commonly known in the West as wahhabi (though many Saudis resist the term), and described by many of our Iranian interlocutors as salafi (though that strikes us as a more general term that can apply to Sunni Muslims who do not follow a Saudi-prescribed religious line). Buttressed by its massive oil wealth, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has emerged as a formidable, “home grown” political entity.

Since the consolidation of the modern Saudi state in the 1920s and 1930s, the Kingdom has turned to the United States as its principal external security partner. There were two main reasons for the Saudis’ original alignment with Washington: America had no legacy of colonial entanglements in the Middle East, and it was not Britain. At least some Saudi princes believe, to this day, that, but for the British, the al-Saud would have ended up controlling the entire Arabian peninsula, including territories now occupied by the smaller Gulf Arab states. And, in the 1930s, King ‘Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud was worried that London would try to weaken his autonomy and bring the new Saudi state firmly under British influence, along with its Bahraini, Kuwaiti, and other Gulf Arab wards.

The United States seemed the best available hedge against that — so, American oil companies received the first major oil concession in Saudi Arabia, in 1933. After World War II, the Kingdom developed a deep and multi-faceted strategic relationship with the United States. In essence, America and Saudi Arabia both wanted to cooperate in balancing against other external powers seeking to expand their influence in the Persian Gulf — but, during the Cold War, the major external power of concern was no longer Britain but the Soviet Union.

This record helps us understand the principal objectives and major elements of Saudi Arabia’s current national security strategy. The Kingdom wants to have at least a quasi-hegemonic status on the Arabian peninsula; at the same time, it does not want another regional state to attain what it would see as hegemony over the Middle East as a whole. And, even in the post-Cold War period, the Saudis have wanted to see their relationship with the United States as the ultimate guarantee of their security and survival.

Today, that strategy is in crisis on all fronts — and the Saudis are not handling it well.

The strategy is in crisis, first of all, because of Riyadh’s plummeting confidence in the reliability and competence of the United States as a security partner. This dynamic is not, per se, new. The Kingdom grew increasingly disenchanted with various aspects of America’s Middle East policy during the 1990s — disenchantment intensified by the various traumas that fallout from the 9/11 attacks inflicted on U.S.-Saudi relations. (The militancy associated with the religious ideology promoted by Saudi Arabia over decades has generated a number of significant security problems for the United States.)

But the Saudi leadership — including, it would seem, King Abdullah himself — is both enormously angry and deeply unsettled by what it sees as Washington’s abandonment of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Egypt is a critically important state for the Saudi — and it has not always been a friendly one. Mubarak’s predecessors, Nasr and Sadat, both challenged Saudi Arabia, in diametrically different but powerful ways. And now that Egyptian political order, the orientation of which is so strategically consequential for Saudi Arabia, is again up for grabs. So, while Western assessments have tended to criticize President Obama and his Administration for being too slow in supporting “forces of change” in Egypt, from a Saudi perspective the Obama Administration dropped Mubarak much too quickly, squandering opportunities to support him in pushing back against those demanding his removal.

On the regional front, the Saudis are discombobulated by what they see as a rising tide of Iranian influence across the Middle East. The Islamic Republic’s allies have been winning, politically, in key venues — Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine. Historically, the Saudis have never been big fans of pan-Arabism. But, in recent years, senior Saudi princes have, with increasing frequency, denounced what they have come portentously to call Iranian “interference” in “Arab affairs.” Now, with the Arab spring, the Saudis are alarmed that the influence of the Islamic Republic and political forces friendly to it will rise even more dramatically. The Saudis are even more alarmed about the potential geopolitical consequences of these developments — e.g., the high likelihood that post-Mubarak Egypt will enjoy improved relations with the Islamic Republic.

So, as the Saudi state sees itself increasingly “encircled” by multiple and expanding threats, Saudi leaders are doubling down on the fundamentals of their traditional national security strategy — military force to ensure its dominance on the Arabian peninsula, the use of religious ideology to raise sectarian concern about rising Shi’a influence, and putting enormous financial resources on the table (e.g., $30 billion for Bahrain) to further its goals. This approach is clearly reflected in the Kingdom’s response to recent events in Bahrain, culminating in the dispatch of Saudi military forces to repress popular protests there.

But Bahrain is not the only place in the region where the Saudi counter-revolution is being felt. Saudi initiative was critical to bringing about the Arab League’s quasi-endorsement of international military intervention in Libya. That amounts to Saudi endorsement of coercive regime change in another Arab state. Regime change is unacceptable in Bahrain, but OK in Libya — the main thing is, the Saudis have reaffirmed their ability to suck the United States onto their side in regional disputes (at those in which Israel is not taking a position at odds with the Saudis).

Washington’s deference to Saudi anxieties could prove almost as corrosive to the possibility of America making critically necessary adjustments in its own Middle East policies as Washington’s deference to Israel.

By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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Bahrain, Libya and Yemen Try to Crush Protests with Violence

Posted on 19 February 2011 by hashimilion

Violence in Libya and Bahrain has claimed scores of lives and left many more injured as the two Arab countries were united by popular protests that continue to shake the status quo and sound alarm bells across the region and the world.

A week after Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, was forced to stand down, dozens of Libyans were reported killed by Muammar Gaddafi’s security forces. Meanwhile, Bahraini troops shot dead at least one protester and wounded 50 others after mourners buried four people who were killed on Thursday in the worst mass unrest the western-backed Gulf state has ever seen.

“We don’t care if they kill 5,000 of us,” a protester screamed inside Salmaniya hospital, which has become a staging point for Bahrain’s raging youth. “The regime must fall and we will make sure it does.”

Last night footage was posted on YouTube apparently showing Bahraini security forces shooting protesters.

Western nations have been struggling to adjust their policies in response to the security crackdowns in Arab countries.

But Britain announced that it was revoking 44 licences for the export of arms to Bahrain amid concern over the violent suppression of protests in the Gulf state. The Foreign Office also said that eight arms export licences to Libya had been withdrawn, while a review of arms exports to the wider region continues.

Bahrain’s crown prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa went on television to promise a national dialogue once calm has returned. But the country’s most senior Shia cleric, Sheikh Issa Qassem, condemned attacks on protesters as a “massacre” and said the government had shut the door to such dialogue.

While the unrest in Bahrain was broadcast instantly around the world, the unprecedented bloodshed in the remote towns of eastern Libya was far harder for global media to cover.

Amid an official news blackout in Libya, there were opposition claims of 60 dead as diplomats reported the use of heavy weapons in Benghazi, the country’s second city, and “a rapidly deteriorating situation” in the latest – and the most repressive – Arab country to be hit by serious unrest.

Libyans said a “massacre” had been perpetrated in Benghazi, al-Bayda and elsewhere in the region. Crowds in the port city of Tobruk were shown destroying a statue of Gaddafi’s Green Book and chanting, “We want the regime to fall,” echoing the slogan of the uprising in Egypt.

Umm Muhammad, a political activist in Benghazi, told the Guardian that 38 people had died in the city. “They [security forces] were using live fire here, not just teargas. This is a bloody massacre – in Benghazi, in al-Bayda, all over Libya. They are releasing prisoners from the jails to attack the demonstrators.” Benghazi’s al-Jala hospital was appealing for emergency blood supplies to help treat the injured.

News and rumours spread rapidly via social media websites including Twitter and Facebook, but information remained fragmentary and difficult to confirm.

In Yemen at least five people were reported killed when security forces and anti-government protesters clashed for a seventh consecutive day in the capital, Sana’a, Aden and other cities, with crowds demanding an end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 32-year rule.

Barack Obama said he was “deeply concerned” about the reports of violence from Bahrain, a close ally and the base of the US fifth fleet, as well as those from Libya and Yemen, and he urged their rulers to show restraint with protesters.

Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, also condemned the killings of protesters in Algeria, Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. “The Middle East and North Africa region is boiling with anger,” he said. “At the root of this anger is decades of neglect of people’s aspirations to realise not only civil and political rights, but also economic, social and cultural rights.”

In Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the influential Egyptian cleric Sheikh Yusef al-Qaradawi said the Arab world had changed and said Egypt’s new military leaders should listen to their people “to liberate us from the government that Mubarak formed”.

It has also emerged that the Ministry of Defence has helped train more than 100 Bahraini army officers in the past five years at Sandhurst and other top UK colleges.

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