A pro-Baath mob in Damascus attacked the convoy of US ambassador Robert Ford, pelting his and other vehicles with tomatoes and eggs. Ford has visited dissident cities as they protested the regime of President Bashar al-Asad, and been denounced by the government for interfering in Syrian politics. The regime has consistently attempted to paint the protesters as agents of sneaky foreign intelligence services. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denounced the regime of Bashar al-Asad for the incident, calling it “intimidation.” Euronews has video:
Meanwhile, in the small Syrian town of Rastan in Homs Province, loyalist troops appear to have run into heavy fire from defectors to the rebels, leaving 7 Syrian troops dead and at least 3 civilians, maybe 7 according to Aljazeera Arabic. Homs Province had been a recruiting ground for the Baathist Regime seeking to bring Sunnis into the military, and it is so far unusual in seeing significant defections and consequently a militarization of the political conflict there.
Two broad coalitions of Egyptian political parties have threatened to boycott the elections set for November 29 if the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) does not ban high officials and politicians of the old National Democratic Party of Hosni Mubarak from running for parliament. In nearby Tunisia, the interim government forbade some 16,000 persons closely associated with deposed president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from participation in politics. The Egyptian parties appear to want something of this sort. At the moment, not only can NDP poobahs run for parliament, they have some advantages and could well end up dominating it. Parties are effectively excluded under the current electoral law from running for one third of seats reserved for independents, many of which may well be NDP members who can exploit being well known and well-connected, as compared to the unknowns in most of the new political parties. Even the Muslim Brotherhood, earlier the military’s teacher’s pet, has joined in the boycott call, though they are not supportive of the demonstrations called for today at Tahrir Square by the New Left organizations.
Heavy fighting broke out again on Friday in Yemen around the southern city of Taizz and in the north, between rebels and forces loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who returned to the country last Friday. In the past week, Yemeni security forces have killed 100 protesters, so that the Saleh regime is now displaying a brutality similar to that of the Baath in Syria. Tom Finn reports for VOA from the ground in Sanaa, arguing that the conflict in Yemen is becoming more violent.
The Bahrain government covered itself in further shame by sentencing 20 physicians on trumped up charges. The real reason they are being targeted is that they treated dissidents during last spring’s protests, which were crushed by the Sunni monarchy. Punishing physicians for treating people is barbaric.
The forces of the new Libyan government claimed to have made some progress toward taking the hold-out city of Sirte, announcing that they had retaken the city’s airport. They made a similar claim two weeks ago, only to be pushed back by Qaddafi loyalists, but this time say they have a stronger position. The Transitional National Council forces also said that they had cleared a corridor allowing two wings of their forces to link up. Most Libyans live along the Mediterranean in a string of small cities, along with the metropolises of Tripoli and Benghazi. The TNC has authority in 97 percent of Libya now, with a couple towns of 100,000 each yet to fall. As might be expected in a revolutionary situation, it has been difficult for the TNC to arrive at a consensus about the shape of a new interim government, and it has decided instead to hold elections sooner than originally envisaged.
On the other hand, Daniel Serwer reports from Tripoli on the fastest post-war recovery he has ever seen. A month ago Tripoli lacked water, food and services and there were fears of turmoil. Now, it has provisions and public order is passable. The achievement of the Libyans in this regard is astonishingly little recognized in the world press, which for some reason has a bias against the revolution and against the TNC, having decided that it likely will fail. The Libyans have put the lie to such pessimism repeatedly,including when they made a popular uprising against dictator Moammar Qaddafi in Tripoli itself, even before rebel troops could enter the city. The country faces severe challenges, but give it a little credit for these achievements so far.
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.
The United States today is celebrating the declaration of independence issued by a murky group of dissidents in 1776, who, had they been rounded up by the duly constituted authorities, would have been summarily and ignominiously hanged. Their brief against their government — a government that claimed an ancient heritage and right to govern them — was that it acted high-handedly and tyrannically, with no regard to public welfare. They charged their king with warring on their economic welfare and of depriving residents of the Thirteen Colonies of basic rights expected by all subjects of the crown, including the right to be represented on bodies that set taxes.
The long series of complaints lodged against the British monarchy by the American revolutionaries bears a striking resemblance to the charges laid against Arab rulers by their people since last December. Interfering with their economic well-being, ruling arbitrarily, undermining any independence of the judiciary, rendering “the military independent of and superior to civil power,” and preventing them from being properly represented in the legislatures have all been complaints launched via Twitter and Facebook and satellite television interviews, rather, as in the 18th century, via printed broadsides, handwritten letters, and word of mouth.
It is little wonder, then, that Americans have been overwhelmingly positive about these developments in the Arab world, with 76% of them sure that the changes will be positive in the long run, and, bless their hearts, 56% in favor of democratization even if it ended up hurting us interests. (Americans are not in the main Realists, it seems). Despite the best efforts of Fox Cable News and the Israel lobbies, only 15% think the revolts are mainly about Muslim fundamentalists trying to grab power. (What is true is that in the second phase of the revolutions, when they go to parliamentary elections, fundamentalist parties will contest vigorously for seats and some may do relatively well).
So here are some recent developments in the Arab revolutions of 2011, to consider on this day, which in 1776 in many ways kicked off a new way of organizing peoples and governments. Ironically, the abuses of executive power against which the Founding generation of Americans mobilized, and against which Arab youth have risen up, are now all too frequently exhibited by the Washington elite of both parties. This comment is not made in the way of encouraging cynicism, but simply to signal to all concerned that achieving democracy is not a single time-bound set of activities; it has to be a permanent way of life among free peoples, to which substantial numbers of citizens have to give of their time, effort and wealth. Otherwise, the executive in a country over time has enormous resources with which to infringe against basic rights of citizens, as do major corporations who have an unfair advantage in dominating the political process. Checks and balances within the government, such as the separation of powers, only go so far. Ultimately, it is people power that keeps tyranny at bay, which is why security forces and officials are so afraid of it.
Thousands of Moroccans protested on Sunday that the reforms proposed in last week’s referendum (which passed by 98%) did not go far enough. King Muhammad VI will now accept that the prime minister must be from the party with the largest number of seats in parliament, and the PM will have the right to nominate cabinet members. These changes move away from absolute monarchy, but are clearly highly limited in scope, and the king retains most of the power in the state, and remains head of the judiciary, thus forestalling its independence.
The opposition Wifaq Party is entering talks on national reconciliation with the Sunni monarchy of Bahrain. The protest movement in Bahrain was brutally crushed by Sunni hard liners in Manama, but clearly a government cannot hope to govern successfully merely by repression of the majority. Despite great mistrust among the contending parties, some compromises would be relatively easy to achieve if there were the will, and that Wifaq is not so alienated as to simply refuse to negotiate is a good sign (it would have every right to be). Likewise, that more level heads in the monarchy are still seeking such talks is promising, since hard liners such as the prime minister (the king’s uncle) want to deal with the movement simply by having people arrested and, let us say, put under severe pressure. Some of the reforms just voted in in Morocco might help in Bahrain.
The community group Lam Echaml this weekend forcefully condemned the stone-throwing on Sunday June 26 by Muslim fundamentalists outside a cinema showing an avant-garde film, “Neither God nor Master,” about secularism in Tunisia. Secular-minded and progressive Tunisians are fearful of the growth of the fundamentalist al-Nahda (Ennahda) Party, ably described here by Mark Lynch, and many entertain dark suspicions that incidents like the attack at the cinema are actually planned by cells within the latter party (something al-Nahda denies). The al-Nahda response to the cinema incident was to deplore violence but also to deplore “provocation,” in response to which secular Tunisians insisted that art is generally provocation and one must have the right to provoke in a democracy. There is no evidence that, for all its smooth self-presentation, al-Nahda leaders actually understand or approve of this principle. Still, that secularists are insistent on making the public case for freedom of expression in uncertain times is a tribute to the spirit of the Tunisian revolution, the one that started all the others.
Yemeni rebels say that they will unilaterally form a transitional governing council, as talks drag on about the formation of a new government. Ali Abdullah Saleh is too ill and disfigured to ever return as president, but refuses to admit, and his highly placed family members and partisans in Sanaa are encouraging his delusions.
Unrest continued Sunday at Tahrir Square in Cairo, where thousands gathered Friday to deplore police brutality. But worryingly, this weekend there was violence between the people in the square themselves. Some suggest that street vendors and others in the informal economy who depend on tourism in the square attacked the tents of long-term protesters for interfering with their livelihoods. Egypt’s tourism is way down this summer, even though security is probably still better there than in many major American cities.
Turkey has just recognized the Transitional Governing Council in Benghazi as the Libyan government and offered it $200 million in aid. Note that the United States still has not recognized this body, and it has not turned over to it the billions that it has frozen of Libyan assets. In contrast, France recognized the young United States and contributed $1 bn. livres tournois to the cause of its independence, intervening navally just as NATO is intervening from the air in Libya. While US contributions to the UN/ NATO effort in Libya are much greater than news reports typically suggest, Washington should go ahead and recognize the TNC and should do much more for the Free Libya population economically. Eastern Libya is suffering badly, as is Misrata and the Western Mountains, and the message must be reinforced that fighting for liberty from a brutal dictator will bring the good will and help of free peoples in the outside world.
The Arab peoples deserve their Fourth of July, and deserve the support of the American people in their quest to end decades of rule by strong men, secret police, and mafia-like cartels run by ruling families and their cronies, which have severely limited the human and economic growth of this key region in which 320 million people live.
Euronews reports that al-Asad tried to distinguish between potential dialogue partners among his critics and those who, he said, were mere vandals and saboteurs. Al-Asad maintains that parliamentary elections will be held later this summer, but his family has presided over a one-party state since 1970 and many question how genuine his commitment to reform is.
President Abdullah Gul of Turkey slammed al-Asad for not opening his country faster to multi-party elections, showing Ankara’s increasing frustration with the Syrian leadership. Turkey under the Justice and Development Party had reached out to al-Asad and repaired relations with Damascus, allowing a big expansion in bilateral trade. But al-Asad is, from Turkey’s point of view, squandering all that progress and threatening Turkey’s economy by being so repressive and provoking a months-long uprising, as well as chasing dissidents over the border into Turkey, where they are an economic and political liability for the latter.
Deposed Tunisian President Zine El Abidin Bin Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi have been sentenced by a Tunisian court to 35 years in prison for embezzlement. While it is clear that the president and the first lady were extremely corrupt while in office, it seems to me that the main purpose of the sentence is to ensure that Bin Ali does not attempt to return to the country, since he now would be arrested at the airport. Bin Ali gave a cock-and-bull interview maintaining that he only flew to Jidda last January to deliver his wife there, and had planned on returning but the plane left without him. Dear Zine: the country left without you.
This Observer editorial argues that the widespread availability of digital video recording devices, including those in smart phones, has allowed people abused by their governments to create an evidence trail that can then be deployed at forums like the International Criminal Court. Sri Lanka, Bahrain and Libya are singled out as governments that have committed war crimes against their people and where these have been recorded and disseminated by video.
Addendum: Egypt’s prestigious al-Azhar Seminary, a leading center of Sunni Muslim authority in the world, has issued a document calling for a civil, democratic state that does not discriminate on the basis of religion or gender and is dedicated to the welfare of the people. The document also seeks more independence of al-Azhar from the state, asking that its rector be elected rather than appointed by the president of the country. This development in the thinking of the al-Azhar clerics is momentous in my view, not only for al-Azhar and Egypt but also for Sunni Islam in general. Al-Azhar does have to overcome suspicion in some quarters that it is an Establishment institution too close to the old Mubarak regime. But many ordinary Sunnis do value its fatwas.
The Wifaq demands for a constitutional monarchy in the small Sunni-ruled island kingdom had been met with a brutal crackdown that left 28 dead and hundreds imprisoned, and the declaration of a state of emergency, which was lifted at the end of May. King Hamad at that time called for resumption of dialogue with the opposition, which Wifaq welcomed. The authorities appeared to have OK’d the Sar demonstrations.
Saturday’s large rally signalled that the reform movement has not been crushed and that a will exists among the Shiite majority to challenge. the hegemony of Sunni near-absolute monarchy.
The Arab Spring began with peaceful protests in Tunis, Cairo, Alexandria, and elsewhere in the region, with masses of demonstrators giving their elites a choice of getting rid of the country’s dictator or of attempting to put down the demonstrations. In Tunisia and Egypt, the military refused for the most part to fire on peaceful noncombatants, and so the dictator had to go. But in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain, the regimes showed themselves willing to use brutal methods. Libya’s Qaddafi has killed and wounded thousands. Syrian troops have probably killed about 1000 persons. Yemen must be nearing 200. Bahrain’s security forces killed less than 30.
Yemen is important to the West because of its commanding position at the mouth of the Red Sea (10 percent of world trade goes through the Suez Canal) and because its government had been an ally in the fight against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has 300 or so fighters in the southern Ma’rib Province of Yemen. Yemen’s security also affects that of neighboring Saudi Arabia, which produces 11 percent of daily world petroleum output. The protest movement against Saleh has a Muslim tinge in some instances, but for the most part is regional, tribal or age-based (as elsewhere, the youth movement is important).
President Bashar al-Asad had offered an amnesty to protest leaders on Tuesday on condition they cease roiling the country, but the offer was rejected by the opposition.
Syria is important to the US as a major country abutting the Eastern Mediterranean, neighboring NATO ally Turkey, as well as non-NATO allies Jordan and Israel. It also shares a border with Lebanon and with Iraq. It is central to the Palestinian-Israeli struggle and had been part of Turkey’s hopes for a big expansion of regional trade in the Middle East. The Damascus regime is allied with Iran and so is on the wrong side of the geopolitical divide in the region from an American, Israeli and Saudi point of view. The one-party, authoritarian Baath Party has ruled with an iron fist for decades.
In Libya, oil minister Shukri Ghanem was confirmed to have defected from the Qaddafi regime in Tripoli days after several senior military officers had done so. Fighting in a western suburb near Misrata calmed down, as Free Libya forces retained control of that major Western city. Fighting continued in nearby Zlitan, which lies between Misrata and the capital, and in the Western Mountain region, where Free Libya forces said they had taken a provincial city where the regional electricity generating plant was located. A UN-authorized NATO and Arab League air contingent extended its bombing campaign, hitting the capital of Tripoli again on Wednesday, as the regime continued to defy a Security Council order to cease attacking its population. Meanwhile, a UN commission found that the Libyan regime has committed war crimes and has attacked civilian non-combatants. It also found evidence of war crimes on the rebel side, though not of attacks on non-combatants.
Qaddafi forces are suspected in a car-bombing of a hotel full of foreigners in Benghazi, which, however, did not kill anyone:
As the state of emergency ended in Bahrain, a small demonstration was held in the Shiite village of Diraz near the capital, which was dispersed by the king’s troops, using tear gas. It is not clear why protesters should not be allowed to demonstrate peacefully in Diraz if there is no state of emergency. The small island kingdom of Bahrain, with a citizen population of roughly 600,000, produces only a small amount of petroleum, but is the HQ of the US Fifth Fleet. Its citizen population is roughly 60 percent Shiite, though it would be more if the Sunni monarchy had not handed out Bahraini citizenship to tens of thousands of foreign Sunnis. The ruling Al Khalifa has a ‘thing’ about Shiites and sees the protest movement, which had included small Sunni parties wanting more civil liberties, as a mere Iranian conspiracy (not so).
The Wifaq Party, the biggest movement among the Arab Shiites of Bahrain, had asked for the country to move to being a constitutional monarchy. The repression was so heavy-handed that Wifaq members of the lower house (who held 18 out of 40 seats) have all resigned. When ordinary democratic political involvement is blocked, people turn to other ways of achieving their goals. Pushing the Shiite majority toward radicalism is a bad idea indeed. The Sunni hard liners in Bahrain see the Shiite majority a s cat’s paws of Shiite Iran. But Bahrain Shiites are mostly Arab, not Persian as in Iran. And a majority follows the Akhbari school of Shiism, which does not teach blind obedience (taqlid) to the ayatollahs. A small group of Shiite activists, al-Haqq, did call for a republic, but they were not in the mainstream of the reform movement, which mostly simply sought a rule of law and a more fair place for the Shiite majority.
Even a Jewish-American diplomat has been hounded out of the country with thuggish tactics (the whereabouts of his house, wife and children were broadcast with the implication that he be made the scapegoat for resentments against Obama’s mild criticism of the vicious crackdown).
The HQ of the US Fifth Fleet is at Manama, the capital of Bahrain. But there are other places such a naval base could be sited in the Gulf, including in Qatar.
Given the sentiments in President Obama’s recent speeches and his pledge to put the US on the side of reform in the region, it is ghoulish for the US to retain a major military facility in a country that has behaved as Bahrain has.
Andreas Gursky, "Bahrain"
Moreover, the idea that the Grand Prix Formula 1 race might now return to Bahrain, after 28 people were killed for standing in Pearl Square, and after hundreds have been arrested and put in stress positions, after mosques have been destroyed, etc.– that idea is obscene and should provoke consumer boycotts if it happens. (Bahrain has become associated with racing in the European and American mind to the extent that artist Andreas Gursky took it as a theme for his painting photograph, “Bahrain,” which I once saw at the Met in NYC.)