Despite its vast oil wealth and the measures the kingdom has taken to buy off potential dissidents, Saudi Arabia is nevertheless not completely able to escape the citizen activism of the Arab Spring. In the kingdom’s case, however, the charge is being led by Saudi women who have mounted a facebook campaign for the right to drive. On Friday, activist women plan to simply defy the Ministry of Interior rule and get behind the wheel. The page is Wome2drive, and there is also a twitter feed.
Opposition from Saudi males is strong, and they have threatened on facebook to beat women who dare try to drive.
Saudi Arabia is the only Muslim country that does not permit women to drive, based on a fatwa or legal ruling of a Wahhabi clerical authority who has been dead for a decade. Gulf societies have strong taboos about unrelated women and men mixing, deriving from their tribal and pastoralist background rather than necessarily from Islam. Ironically, however, Saudi women are often forced to rely on unrelated men as chauffeurs, and some have alleged they were raped.
Many women cannot afford chauffeurs, and the regulation interferes with their educational and professional opportunities.
Since Muslims gather on Friday afternoon for group prayers at mosques, Fridays have for 1400 years been a time when it is easy to mobilize crowds for political action. In the US, Friday is a nothing news day and in fact bad news is released late on Friday on the theory that no one will bother to notice it. But in the Middle East, a lot of news happens on Fridays. Here are some of the big stories generated by 4/29:
1. Thousands of protesters defied a ban on rallies in Syria on Friday, in Deraa in the south, Banias on the coast, Homs and Hama in the center of the country, Qamishly in the Kurdish east, and 10,000 came out in Damascus itself. Security forces are said to have killed 62 persons yesterday. Mind you, all this activity came after the regime had already sent in tanks and snipers and made it clear that it would use live ammunition to repress the protests. Deraa has been occupied by units of the fourth and fifth army divisions, and nevertheless residents of surrounding small towns walked into the besieged city to protest the crackdown and deaths there; 15 were allegedly killed.
2. In Yemen, enormous duelling demonstrations were held in the capital of Sanaa. Tens of thousands of protesters marched up a main thoroughfare demanding the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Elsewhere in the city, tens of thousands of his followers demonstrated in favor of the president’s legitimacy. In the Red Sea port city of Hodeida, protesters were fired at by security forces, and several were allegedly killed. There was also a big demonstration in Aden.
On Sunday, Saleh is scheduled to meet with opposition leaders to conclude an agreement that would lead to his stepping down within 30 days. His government insists that the protests should stop at that point. The opposition worries that the agreement will be a 30-day license for Saleh to kill protesters and quash the movement.
The logic of the Arab spring is about popular sovereignty. The people power being displayed in the streets, on twitter and Facebook, is intended to sweep away impediments to the expression of the will of the people, mainly presidents for life. The Arab crowds are investing their hopes in a new era of parliamentarism, in elections and constitutions, in term limits and referendums, in the rule of law and the principle that governmental authority must derive from the people. It is not that they are John Stuart Mill liberals. The crowds have a communitarian aspect, and demands jobs and for free formation of labor unions and the right to bargain collectively form a key part of the protest movements. But such labor organizing is also seen by movement participants and part of the expression of the popular will.
That the movements have been so powerfully informed by this Rousseauan impulse helps explain their key demands and why they keep spreading. The progression is that they begin with a demand that the strong man step down. If they get that, they want a dissolution of old corrupt ruling parties and elites. They want parliamentary elections. They want term limits for the president and reduction of presidential powers. They want new constitutions, newly hammered out, and subject to national referendums. They want an end to corruption and croneyism. They aim for future governments to be rooted in the national will.
Michael Hudson surveys the wreckage in Bahrain, where the Shiite majority had demanded constitutional reforms in aid of popular sovereignty from the Sunni monarchy, but got imported Saudi Wahhabi troops instead. The Bahrain monarchy’s rigid refusal to compromise has turned the reform movement into a sectarian issue. Thus, the Bahrain Shiites are attracting support from Lebanon’s Hizbullah (which represents that country’s Shiites) and from Iraq’s Shiites. Bahrain airlines has been forced to cease flying to Beirut because of threats. Arab Shiism has often been denied political expression on the basis of its weight in the electorate, since the majority Sunni societies view that branch of Islam as a heresy, and link it to Shiite-majority Iran.
Despite warnings by US Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates that half-measures are insufficient, the Sunni Bahrain monarchy has found itself unable to offer any substantial concessions to the Shiite citizen majority.
Bahrain is an absolute monarchy where the king appoints the 40 members of the senate. The 40 members of the lower house are elected, but gerrymandering prevents the Shiite majority from attaining a majority of seats in it. Besides, the lower house of parliament is relatively toothless, and it can be overruled by the appointed upper house. Both can be over-ruled by the king.
The monarchy allows the US Fifth Fleet to use a naval base at Manama for hist HQ, a key military asset for Washington that the Pentagon would be loathe to lose.
The Guardian goes further and reports that the Bahrain government may ask Saudi troops to come in to quell the protests. This step would be a game-changer in Bahrain, and it is hard to see how the Sunni monarchy could retain any legitimacy at all among its Shiite subjects if it took this desperate step.
10. In the Sunni-ruled monarchy of Bahrain, which has practiced employment discrimination against the Shiite majority of citizens, the Ministry of Interior has announced it will create 20,000 security-related jobs, apparently intended to be filled mainly by Shiite Bahrainis with college degrees. The protest movement, however, is unlikely to be satisfied unless there are political, not just economic concessions. Bahrain is an absolute monarchy where the senate is Sunni and court-appointed and both king and senate can over-rule at will the elected lower house. Because of gerry-mandering, although the Shiite party got 60 percent of the vote in the last election, it gained only 18 of 40 seats there.
7. Some 5000 leftists and Muslim activists were able to protest in Amman, Jordan this weekend because the Jordanian cabinet has amended the Public Gatherings Law to allow peaceful assembly without prior government permission. Five other parties have put rallies on hold while they pursue political dialogue with the new prime minister, who was brought in to replace his unpopular predecessor as a result of the protests.
6. Sultan Qaboos of Oman has sacked three cabinet ministers and ordered the creation of 50,000 public-sector jobs under pressure of protests by oil workers in cities such as Sohar. This weekend oil workers in Haima demanded more government investment in their area, which is remote from the capital.
5. Tunisia’s provisional government has laid out a road map to the future, under pressure from continued protests. A constituent assembly will be elected this summer and a wholly new constitution will be drawn up by elected representatives of the people. This past week, protesters forced the resignation of the prime minister, as having been too close to ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
4. Egyptian protesters stormed the HQs in Cairo and Alexandria of the State Security Police, the dreaded secret police who used arbitrary arrest and torture to keep strong man Hosni Mubarak in power for decades. They said they had been afraid that security officials would shred documents implicating them in crimes, and they carried off many documents. Some were former prisoners who had been tortured in the cells of the building they invaded.
3. The invasion of the security police HQs forced Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf to replace Mubarak crony Mahmoud Wagdi with Mansour al-Issawi as minister of Interior (the cabinet ministry in charge of police).
The BBC is reporting that Qaddafi’s forces were numerous and well-armed, and had intended to take Brega first and then roll on to Ajdabiya. The less well-armed pro-Benghazi forces nevertheless contained many ex-military and had superior esprit de corps, and reinforcements from Ajdabiya allowed the Brega citizen militia to beat off the attackers.
Qaddafi’s willingness to bomb his own civilian population from the air is being likened by the Saudi newspaper al-Iqtisadiya [The Economy] to Israel’s routine use of bombing against the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip. This comparison seems to me extraordinary and a sign of how unpopular Qaddafi is among Arab intellectuals and in the Arab public.
Qaddafi’s hopes of surviving and of reconquering the east depend heavily on his access to monetary resources. With many of his assets abroad frozen and his banks closed, and 80% of the petroleum fields and facilities in rebel-held territory, he is not well-positioned for a war of attrition. Hence the attempt to retake Brega quickly.
As in Iraq under the oil embargo of the 1990s, likely gasoline and kerosene will start being simply smuggled by Qaddafi’s forces, to provide him a lifeline. It is not lucrative to smuggle raw crude, so the real question is Qaddafi’s control of refineries. Gasoline, once produced, is easy to transport and has a high value, so it is ‘fungible’– easily exchanged for cash anywhere, and gasoline is increasingly the hope for revenue of both sides. According to the LAT, the Benghazi rebels say that they don’t need the petroleum revenue to function, since the regime had not earlier been spending much of it in their region anyway. But this assertion is mere bravado. If the standoff between east and west Libya continues, they will need to purchase arms on the international market, and will need big money to do so.
Aljazeera English reports that the strength of Qaddafi’s military has been over-estimated. For instance, his jets seem mostly not to be able to fly (sophisticate jets even in the West spend as much as 50% of the time being repaired and serviced on the ground, out of service, and the proportion is likely much, much higher in Tripoli). Only a few planes have flown missions against the rebels.
Aljazeera reports that by Wednesday morning pro-Qaddafi forces had retaken Gharyan and Sabratha in the northwest, and had tried and failed to take the oil town of Brega in the east. Qaddafi’s jets also bombed arms depots in rebel-held Ajdabiya.
In other words, Qaddafi still controls only parts of Tripoli, a bit of territory to the far west, and his birthplace of Sirte, and is not proving able to retake lost territory. As it stands, I still think he has lost 90% of the country. But until the Tripoli officer corps decides they cannot win and throw in with the rebels, or until the rebels manage to mount a credible military campaign to take the rest of Libya, it appears things have settled for the moment into a stalemate– though one that overwhelmingly favors the rebels with regard to people-power, despite Qaddafi’s continued military assets (a small military force that is well-equipped and relatively well-trained can sometime trump a big civilian population).
It increasingly appears that outside intervention via the UN or NATO is off the table, and so the end game will likely play out inside Libya and based on Libyan dynamics.
Saudi Arabia, the world’s major swing producer, is afraid of unrest itself and attempting to buy off its own population, so needs the extra money for this purpose. Saudi Arabia had traditionally attempted to hold prices down, because its vast reserves meant it could always make its money in the future, and its relatively small population (22 mn. citizens) left it with limitations on its economic absorptive capacity, i.e., it couldn’t put a lot of oil profits to work in its own domestic economy.
So the Saudi government is handing out $37 billion, all of a sudden, to its people for housing and unemployment relief.
Saudi authorities on Tuesday detained a Shiite clergyman in the Eastern Province who preached a sermon calling for a constitutional monarchy. Shiites are probably about 12 percent of Saudis and are culturally and politically repressed by the Wahhabi establishment, which typically views them as idolaters. Had the call for constitutional monarchy come from other quarters, it would be more significant, since it is hard to imagine Wahhabi-Shiite political unity. Unrest among Saudi Shiites might affect the oil-rich Eastern Province where they mostly reside, but the Saudi state has significant repressive capacities in that area.
So far, Iran and Iraq are the only Middle East countries to have seen significant protests this winter that have regular parliamentary elections. Significantly, Iran’s elections are now viewed as fraudulent by a plurality of Iranians. Protesters came out into the downtown area of Tehran on Tuesday, and were repressed, while opposition leaders Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi may have been taken off to prison (they were under house arrest).
The March 9, 2010 elections in Iraq produced no change from the previous government, and power inheres more in the oil-rich central executive than in parliament. There is a big protest planned next week on the anniversary of those elections, which is pretty scary– as Libyans and Egyptians demand parliamentary elections, Iraqi’s are protesting against theirs. Many Kurds outside the Kurdistan Alliance establishment, many Sunnis, and many Sadrist and other Shiites feel as though high political deals brokered behind closed doors determine their fate more than elections. Otherwise, most of the major protest movements have been against authoritarian regimes that had ceased making sure the people shared in national resources. Ironically, Iraq is dealing with its protests with a combination of violence and hand-outs, and so is behaving more like Saudi Arabia than like Tunisia and Egypt.
The Great Middle Eastern revolt of 2011 has not written its last line yet.