As usual, Friday was a big day for the popular Arab reform movements that are challenging dictatorial governments.
1. Syrian security forces are alleged to have killed about 20 protesters on Friday, as the demonstrations and rallies continue to be vigorous in places like Hama and Deir al-Zor. The one-party state, ruled by the Baath Party, had attempted to mollify Syrians this week by issuing a law allowing many parties to contest elections. Most are not mollified.
2. Tens of thousands of Yemenis protested again on Friday, demanding an end to the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is recuperating in Saudi Arabia from burns in a bomb attack. A general who defected to the protesters provided them with protection in Sanaa via an unusually large convoy of military vehicles. Half of Yemen’s 23 million citizens own a gun, and fears of a bloody internal struggle have risen. Protests were held not only in the capital of Sanaa but also in Taez (the second-largest city), Maarib, and elsewhere.
3. Thousands of mostly Shiite protesters marched on the Budaiya highway outside Manama on Friday, denouncing the fixed “dialogue” process and tepid reforms offered by King Hamad Al Khalifa. The dialogue council had been heavily stacked with Sunnis and regime supporters. The Wifaq Party was marginalized. It represents the majority of Bahrain Shiites, who are roughly 60% of the population (down from 65% because of a crash program of giving citizenship to foreign Sunnis in recent years on the part of the regime). Shiite Bahrainis are disproportionately rural and poor and face employment, social and political discrimination. Wifaq seeks a constitutional monarchy, though the minority view that a republic would be even better may be gaining adherents as the monarchy uses hard line tactics to repress the majority demands. Manama is the site of the HQ of the US Fifth Fleet, and while the Obama administration has urged King Hamad to negotiate and compromise with his citizens, it has done no more than that, in the face of severe repression and violations of basic human rights. There is no evidence for the regime charge that Bahrain Shiites are cat’s paw of nearby Shiite Iran. Most Bahrain Shiites belong to a different legal school than Iranians, and, being Arabs, are skittish about the idea of Persian domination. (A minority of Bahrain Shiites, mostly in Manama, has Iranian ancestry). The demonstrations on Friday were a remarkable resurgence of the democracy movement, given how severe the crackdown against it was.
4. The Egyptian Left has been on a roll since July 8, starting back up the Tahrir protests and forcing the government to move more aggressively in trying former regime figures and out-of-control police, and in switching out about half the cabinet, replacing Establishment figures with persons more sympathetic too or even deriving from the ranks of the protesters. The Muslim fundamentalists were upset by this growing leftist influence, backed by labor activists and youth groups sympathetic to them, and so threatened to stage a big rally on July 29 in favor of implementing Islamic law. They were afraid in part that the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces, the real power behind the civilian cabinet of PM Essam Sharaf, will issue “guiding principles” for the drafting of the constitution, scheduled to begin this winter after elections. These “guiding principles” could forestall any Islamization of the constitution. The Wasat Party mediated a deal to avoid a clash at Tahrir Square, and it was decided that some 30 parties and organizations would hold a joint demonstration for mutually agreed-upon goals. The Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood, which represents itself as the modern face of Muslim politics, largely abided by the agreement. But Salafis, who are a recognizable subculture in Egypt, did not. Salafi men tend to wear white, Saudi-style robes, checkered kaffiyas or head scarves, and large beards, often with no moustaches. The Salafis want an Islamic state and a hard line interpretation of shariah, and on Friday they said so loudly. The Salafis are a tiny group in Egypt, and they are widely seen to have behaved badly, even by other Muslim parties like the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, the Salafis put a scare into women, middle class people, Coptic Christians, and youth on Friday that almost certainly hurt the chances of the Muslim Brotherhood in the upcoming elections, at least in urban areas. That is, the true significance of Friday’s events is the opposite of that you see in a lot of today’s headlines in the Western press, about Muslim politics coming to the fore. More like Muslim politics behaves like a boor.
5. Some 3,000 Muslim fundamentalists protested in downtown Amman, Jordan, demanding “genuine reform.” On July 15, pro-regime crowds (or paid hands, who knows?) attacked protesters and journalists there. The fundamentalists took a joint oath to remain peaceful. Polling does not show that Muslim fundamentalism is very popular in Jordan, and as long as the protests are spearheaded by that part of the political spectrum, they are unlikely to amount to much.