Spreading unrest

Print edition : December 14, 2012

DEMONSTRATORS WAVE FLAGS OF YEMEN, LIBYA, Jordan, Egypt and Tunisia, countries that witnessed Arab Spring protests, along with Bahraini flags in A'ali in Bahrain on November 18. Thousands of protesters, mainly Shias, calling for greater rights also streamed into an area outside the capital, Manama.-HASAN JAMALI/AP

A RECENT spurt in fuel prices has triggered a wave of protests in Jordan, which is snowballing into demands for a regime change. On November 20, around 500 dissenters marched for around two kilometres from the headquarters of the joint unionsa focal point of the proteststo the Prime Ministers office. A lot of the sloganeering was about the fuel price hike. Those raising fuel prices want to see the country burn, chanted some. From the regimes perspective, the political slogans were the ones that were truly alarming.

The people want the fall of the regime, some shouted, echoing a call that has reverberated throughout the Arab world since the Arab Spring in December 2010, which brought down several authoritarian regimes in West Asia and North Africa. The call for the exit of the royalty, which is punishable by imprisonment, has been unprecedented in Jordan, a country that has always remained politically sensitive because of its proximity to the West Bank, Israel, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The country hosts several Palestinian refugee camps, and a large section of its population is of Palestinian origin.

In his response to the protests, the Prime Minister focussed on the economic component of the demands. He pointed out that the price hike was unavoidable as the country was reeling under a $5 billion deficit. The rise in price is expected to save the exchequer $42 million by the end of the year. Jolted by the protests, the petro-monarchies of the Gulf have stepped in to support the Jordanian monarch, King Abdullah II. At a recent news conference with the Jordanian Foreign Minister, Nasser Judeh, his United Arab Emirates (UAE) counterpart, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan, said: We, in the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC] states, are studying means of ending or minimising this deficit in affordable fuel.

The UAE is part of the six-nation GCC, which also includes Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait. Last December, the GCC established a $5-billion development fund for Jordan and Morocco. After the Arab Spring protests erupted, Saudi Arabia emerged as the chief advocate for an alliance of monarchies in the region. Jordan and Morocco have been identified as possible candidates in an expanded GCC. Pressure has been mounting on many of the regions monarchies to carry out reforms ever since the onset of the Arab Spring. Protests by pro-democracy campaigners have emerged as a major factor in spurring the regions monarchies to hang together. Among the GCC countries, Bahrain has been the most affected by the protests. Kuwait has emerged as another country where demands for democratic change have been escalating. Saudi Arabia has not been able to extinguish the protests, which have rocked parts of its strategic oil-bearing eastern province.

The regions royals have blamed Iran for the agitations, stating that most of the protesters were playing fifth column for Iran because of their common Shia descent. The Jordanian monarch was the first to warn about the rise of a Shia Crescent in West Asiaa highly divisive call that appeals to sectarian consciousness in an ethnically and religiously diverse region.

In Kuwait, the police used teargas shells and smoke canisters on October 31 to disperse thousands of protesters heading towards the prison where Musallam al-Barrak, a popular protester, was lodged. Barrak was arrested for a speech critical of the Kuwaiti Emir. Picked up two days earlier, Barrak was charged on three counts and was imprisoned for 10 days, pending further questioning. In mid-October, at a public rally, he appealed to the Emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, to avoid the pitfall of autocratic rule. Since the Emir is considered immune and inviolable under the Kuwaiti Constitution, prosecutors charged Barrak over the remark.

These protests were among the several that took place after the Emir ordered changes to the electoral rules which, in the view of the opposition, would weaken its presence in Kuwaits politically charged Parliament. Under the new rules, a voter can pick only one candidate, instead of four. As the protests built up, the authorities banned gatherings of more than 20 people and accelerated preparations for elections, which are now scheduled for December 1.

According to the state news agency KUNA, the Interior Ministry has justified the crackdown by accusing violent agitators and instigators of causing trouble and warned that it will deal harshly with further protests. The Kuwaiti crackdown coincided with harsh measures in Bahrain, where protests against the monarchy have been continuing, despite several crackdowns and reports of custodial torture, for nearly two years. In late October, the Bahraini Interior Ministry banned rallies and gatherings, which, in its view, were linked to violence, rioting and attacks on property. Following the order, Amnesty International slammed Manama for violating the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and has called for the immediate lifting of the ban.

Recently, a Bahrain court sentenced 23 health workers to three months imprisonment for their role in last years pro-democracy protests, officials say. As dissent flared up in several parts of the Gulf, governments have been particularly sensitive about keeping the royalty out of the frame of protests. A draft media law in Qatar, home to Al Jazeera television, prohibits publication or broadcast of information that would abuse the regime or offend the ruling family or cause serious harm to the national or higher interests of the state.

Atul Aneja
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