Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Three Blind Mice of the Middle East

By William Fisher

In Bahrain, the daughter of one of that country’s most prominent human rights advocates has now been on a hunger strike for well over 52 hours. The whereabouts of her father, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, and his family members, as well as many others, remains unknown after they were whisked out of their homes in a dead-of-night raid by 15 masked security forces dressed in black.

She told The Guardian newspaper of his arrest: "They broke the door of the apartment. My father didn't resist at all, he went to them calmly but straight away a policeman told him, 'Down, down, get on the floor' ... They dragged him down the stairs and started beating him," she said.

"They did not give any reason ... They were beating him very severely, on the ground, maybe four or five of them, kicking him and hitting him in the face."

She said her father had been calling for democracy and had been saying that the regime was guilty of killing, torturing and detaining people, and should be put on trial.

And then there is Ali Isa Saqer, who died in Bahraini custody. Nabeel Rajab,
the head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, is accused of posting a "fabricated image" of Sager on his Twitter account, showing that Saqer was beaten in custody. The images are graphic, showing Saqer's body covered with bruises and gashes.

According to the interior ministry, the Sager photos were fabricated.

As for Rajab, the official Bahrain news agency and a newspaper close to the government accused him of being part of a "terrorist network" and of passing "false information" to international organizations for the purpose of "harming Bahrain's reputation.”

Later, he was prevented from traveling to Saudi Arabia. In December, Rajab's computer was confiscated as he was about to board a plane at Bahrain international airport. It was returned with the power on, indicating that information may have been downloaded or copied.

Meantime, Maryam Alkhawaja of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, reports, "The fourth death in detention in 10 days yesterday." Kareem Fakhrawi was a businessman who disappeared after he went to the police station to file a complaint. He was one of the founders of AlWasat Newspaper and was on the board of directors.

She writes, “You can see the footage of his body which shows torture marks here: The only official statement was on the Bahrain News Agency twitter account he died from liver failure complications:!/bna_ar/status/57938447310131200.”

In Yemen, violent clashes were also reported in Sana’a and Aden. Across Yemen, thousands continued protesting against President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Arab Gulf states, involved in mediating the crisis in Yemen, made a more aggressive push for Saleh to step down, a move that Saleh has rejected. Meanwhile, opposition demonstrations grow and more protesters are killed, injured and jailed.

And in Syria, as Security Forces open fire on protesters, the Syrian branch of the International Federation for Human Rights calls for international pressure on Syria, denunciation of the repression by the UN Security Council and the convening of a special session of the UN Human Rights Council.

But Syrian security forces continue to fire on thousands of demonstrators in Deraa, killing more than 20. Mass demonstrations continue in Douma despite the cutting of phone lines. Over the weekend, clashes continued with security forces firing live ammunition on funeral processions and protesters in Banias and Deraa.

Some have suggested that Syria’s President Asad is changing his strategy, moving from “break up the demonstrations in any way necessary” to “just take photos of the main demonstrators and go to their homes and arrest them after the demonstrations.”

But perhaps the Security Forces didn’t get the memo. They are continuing to use tear gas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition to quell the massive disturbances.

Given what has already happened in Egypt and Tunisia, the rulers of Bahrain, Yemen and Syria must be thought of as “The Three Blind Mice of the Middle East.”

Despite incontrovertible evidence from Egypt that merely changing the government does not satisfy those who demand nothing less than the ouster of their present rulers, the Three Blind Mice nevertheless went through this ritual Kabuki dance.

Predictably, with no effect whatever.

In Bahrain, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa has been approached by various groups and individuals with suggestions for his orderly departure. The King is a Sunni Muslim; a sizable part of his population is Shia. But the uprisings against his rule have come from both Sunni and Shia. The Shia live mostly in the Eastern part of Bahrain, nearest to Shia copmmunitieuis in neighboring Sunni Saudi Arabia. That was a major reason the Saudis sent a thousand troops into Bahrain to help the King maintain law and order, Saudi style.

The United States, while excoriating Iranian ally Syria, has been largely silent on Bahrain, presumably because of the tiny Kingdom’s proximity to Saudi Arabia and the presence of sizable populatuions of Shia Musis in each couintry, and Bahrain’s strategic role as headquarters of the U.S. fifth fleet.

In Yemen, President Saleh first sought to mollify demonstrators by pledging not to run in 2012, when his term expires. Later, under still more pressure, he agreed to leave office by the end of this year. Still later, he appeared to reject both these positions and his current thinking remains unclear. Protestors are demanding nothing less than his immediate departure, as Egyptians did vis a vis Mubarak.

For the U.S., the Yemen situation is causing a major migraine.

In Syria, opposition groups say the Asad regime has reached out to them to begin talks. And Syrian President Bashar al-Asad has made some concessions to the demonstrators. For example, he granted Syrian citizenship to up to 150,000 Kurds living in eastern Syria, thus satisfying a long-standing demand of the Kurdish minority.

But these belated gestures will mean less than nothing if armed police and soldiers are killing, injuring and arresting protesters at the same time.

That is a fool’s strategy. And it is unlikely to satisfy the demands of the pro-democracy movement.

How is all this likely to play out? The honest answer is that no one knows. It is possible that The Three Blind Mice of the Middle East may for now be successful in putting down their rebellions using brute force, or some combination of the usual repression sweetened with a few crumbs of new freedom.

But history tells us that when movements such as The Arab Awakening reach the kind of numbers and intensity it took to oust Mubarak from Egypt and Ben Ali from Tunisia they become virtualy unstoppable.

They may be quieted for weeks, months, even years. But, one day, they will be re-galvanized by some random event, like a fruit-seller setting himself on fire.

So The Three Blind Mice of the Middle East shouldn’t bet on The Arab Awakening going back to sleep.