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March 3, 2011

Arab revolutions: For democracy, liberty and social justice

The Canadian Charger

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For the last 10 weeks the winds of change have been sweeping the Arab world, in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Algeria and Bahrain. The people of these countries are making history by peacefully demanding democracy, liberty and social justice.

Libya’s situation is currently the most horrific.  It appears that these are Mouammar Gadhafi’s last days, as opposition forces have seized control of some cities, including Benghazi, the second-largest city, and at this telling intense fighting is going on in the capital Tripoli. 

It seems that Gadhafi is intent on leaving floating on a river of blood, as those of his forces that continue to be loyal have been given orders to attack with everything they have.  Machine guns and mortars have been used.  Snipers pick off protesters one at a time.  Airplanes strafe and bomb crowds of demonstrators. 

His ruthlessness has led some troops to defect.  Pilots refusing attack their fellow citizens have flown their planes to Malta and demanded asylum.  Libyan diplomats have joined the demand that Gadhafi step down, including the UN ambassador and ambassadors to the US, India, Great Britain, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Poland, and the Arab League.

While his house of cards is collapsing, it is highly uncertain what will happen next.  The government of Libya consists of a small coterie at the top and highly decentralized rule below. 

No opposition organization has been able to develop, and tribes function to run their own affairs to a large extent. Cyrenaica, with its city of Benghazi, has been separate from Tripoli in the past, and separation could be on the agenda again. The country could fragment even more at the level of tribes. 

Libya’s bloodbath is unique among the current upheavals in the Arab world.  For example, while there has been loss of life in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain, there has been nothing like the indiscriminate slaughter perpetrated by Gadhafi on his own people. 

In Bahrain, government forces fired on demonstrators on February 18, killing several.  However, reaction both by the protesters and the international community appears to have changed the government’s mind.  Police and military have been ordered to allow demonstrations.

And so the opposition filled Pearl Square.  The original demand was for a constitutional monarchy, but following the brutal attack on February 18 some of the demonstrators are now calling for the king to go, even though he may not be the responsible party. 

King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa apologized for the attack, while it is the prime minister, Shekh Kalaifa ben Salman al-Kalifa, who controls the armed forces and was responsible.  In an effort to placate the demonstrators, the king has ordered the release of a number of political parties and issued a substantial amount of money to all Bahrainian families. 

Bahrain is a largely Shi’ite country, making up around two-thirds of the population as against one-third Sunni.  Yet, the king and his entourage are Sunni.  Demonstrators are largely Shi’ite. Complicating the matter is that over half the population lack citizenship, and it is not clear at this point what part if any the non-citizens are playing in the demonstrations.  Supporters of the monarchy have rallied–at a Sunni mosque.

Bahrain’s military is in large part made up of foreigners, in this case often from Pakistan. 

Bahrain has the reputation of being somewhat progressive in comparison to many other Arab countries.  Unlike Libya, Bahrain has a moderate organized opposition which has been represented in parliament, though members resigned in protest against the events of February 18.  However, there is also a less moderate opposition that has not participated in parliamentary elections.  All in all, any possible upheaval is likely to lead to less disorganization than what might be expected in Libya.

In Yemen, demonstrations have been occurring since February 11, in Saana’a, the capital, as well as in Aden and other places.  Demonstrators are calling for the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been in power for 32 years.  They do not want to wait for him to keep his promise to leave in 2013. 

While human rights violations are not unknown in Bahrain, the picture in Yemen is far worse, where torture and killings are more regular occurrences. 

There have been some deaths among protesters but nothing comparable to what is happening in Libya.  Pro-government demonstrators and plain clothes police attacked protesters on at least one occasion.  That was a stunt pulled in Egypt as well, as you may remember. 

There is an organized opposition in Yemen, including Aden separatists.  Also playing a significant role are a variety of different religious sects, both Sunni and Shi’ite, and tribal allegiances.  These two often overlap.

While there is accord among different groups in the country that Saleh must go, it is uncertain what would follow his departure.  Would Aden go for independence?  Would there be clashes among the various tribes and religious groups? 

Algeria has been plagued by protests around the country for years.  In 1999, Abdelaziz Bouteflika took the presidency, returning civilian government to Algeria, but the election was without an opposition. 

The country has a history of serious strife since the Islamic Salvation Front won the 1991 election, a result annulled by a military coup d’état. It was charged that the Front, with their extreme interpretation of sharia, favored “one man, one vote, one time.” 

When Bouteflika came in, a Charter of Peace and Reconciliation attempted to wipe the slate clean of crimes by the military and the Islamists, resulting in a major reduction in violence.  However, discord is again a fact of life–and death.

Strikes and demonstrations have been taking place across the country in various locations for several years.  The events in Tunisia and Egypt served to galvanize discontent, especially because of a substantial increase in food prices.  Protests and riots gained force in the capital Algiers and around the country. 

Various opposition parties, the Algerian League for Human Rights, and unions formed the National Coordination for Change and Democracy.  The formation followed spontaneous demonstrations. 

Demonstrations have been met with massive government violence, but hardly on the Libyan scale.  When Mubarak quit, around 30,000 police gathered to counter a demonstration in Algiers.  While demonstrators are calling for the government to be removed, Bouteflika and his officials are using both the stick and the carrot.  The stick is repression and the carrot promises of reform. 

The state of emergency, in place since 1991, is supposed to be cancelled by the end of this month.  More jobs are to be created.  All parties are to be allowed access to government-run radio and television.  And yet, the demonstrations continue.

There are real differences among the four countries, but there is also commonality: lack of freedom.  Except for Bahrain, food costs and unemployment are factors.  In Bahrain, these may also apply to some of the immigrants.  The clarion calls from Tunisia and Egypt are an important impetus for protest and change in all four countries.

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M. Elmasry

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