Spreading fire

Print edition : April 08, 2011

Protesters march to the Saudi embassy in Manama, Bahrain, on March 15. - HASAN JAMALI/AP

As pro-democracy protests keep up momentum across the Arab world, Saudi troops enter Bahrain on the Khalifa's request.

ALTHOUGH the focus of the West was mainly on the events unfolding in Libya, the pro-democracy movements in other Arab countries, such as Bahrain, Yemen, Oman, Morocco and Saudi Arabia, continued to gain momentum. The security forces in Bahrain and Yemen once again resorted to force in dealing with peaceful demonstrators. Pictures of a Bahraini demonstrator being shot at point-blank range with a tear gas canister on March 14, along with other instances of state-sponsored violence in many other Arab countries, have shown that the entrenched authoritarian regimes are not prepared to bow to the demands of the Arab street.

In Bahrain, protesters camping at Pearl Square said that they would leave only after the Khalifa (King) made meaningful political concessions, including the holding of free elections and the transfer of executive power to elected representatives. The Bahrain government has now responded by bringing in troops from Saudi Arabia in a last-ditch effort to preserve the absolute powers of the monarchy. The peaceful protesters in Bahrain had succeeded in blockading the main port and had surrounded the Interior Ministry when a contingent of 1,000 Saudi troops with armoured vehicles were sent in. Around 500 policemen from neighbouring United Arab Emirates were also summoned. The Saudi government had intervened in 1994 when the opposition mounted large-scale protests demanding democracy.

The Saudi intervention is being sought to be portrayed as a united Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) effort to secure the oil and commercial facilities in Bahrain. Oman, another GCC member, is also experiencing continued protests. GCC troops were last deployed in Kuwait during the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Bahrain is the smallest country in the region and has a population of around 1.32 million, half of whom are workers from India and other South Asian countries.

The protesters, who evidently have popular support, have termed the Saudi intervention as occupation. A spokesman for the country's largest party, Wefaq, said that it considered the entry of foreign troops to be blatant occupation and a declaration of war against unarmed civilians. After the Saudi troops moved in with their heavy armour on March 14, the Bahrain government proclaimed a three-month emergency. On March 16, the protesters at Pearl Square were once again brutally dislodged by the army and the police. The security forces had briefly cleared the area in the third week of February after staging a bloody midnight raid. Many deaths and hundreds of injuries have been reported in the latest incident. The opposition has alleged that the government used United States-supplied Apache helicopters to shoot at unarmed protesters. There are reports that violence has erupted in the Shia-dominated areas of the kingdom.

The opposition parties have issued an urgent appeal to the United Nations Security Council to stop foreign military forces from attacking unarmed civilian demonstrators. It is unlikely that the Saudi government decided to intervene militarily without keeping the U.S. government in the loop. The U.S., which has one of its biggest naval bases in Bahrain, housing the Fifth Fleet, has only responded by urging restraint on all sides after the Saudi troops entered the kingdom.

Professor Mark LeVine of the University of California wrote that the U.S. was the ruling family's biggest tenant. William Crowe, former Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that pound for pound, man for man, Bahrain is the best ally the U.S. has anywhere in the world.

The Bahraini Freedom Movement, in a statement issued just before the Saudi intervention, said that the U.S. was trying to lure them into a dialogue with the Khalifa, who had so far not made any meaningful concessions on the demand for political reforms. The opposition has alleged that the U.S. has been working from behind the scenes to shore up the monarchy.

Iran has criticised the entry of foreign troops into Bahrain. The peaceful protests in Bahrain are among the domestic issues in the country, and creating an atmosphere of fear by using the armies of other countries to suppress these demands is not the solution, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said. Iran has protested to Saudi Arabia and the U.S., stating that the intervention by Gulf troops in Bahrain is unacceptable. Bahrain has recalled its ambassador to Teheran, alleging interference in the internal affairs of the kingdom.

The governments in the Gulf are keen to give a sectarian colour to the protest movement in Bahrain. The Saudi intervention could have repercussions in states such as Iraq and Lebanon where the governments are Shia-dominated. The state of emergency in Bahrain has given the security forces, which are almost totally manned by Sunnis, considerable powers to put down the protests.

Domino effect feared

The Saudi royal family fears a domino effect if the Sunni rulers of Bahrain are ousted. The days of rage have already spread to many Saudi towns such as al-Qatif in the eastern oil-producing part of the country, populated by the Shia minority. Pre-emptive security measures and strong warnings have so far stopped the days of rage from spreading to big Saudi cities. In late February, King Abdullah announced that the Saudi government would be spending an unprecedented $37 billion to pay for unemployment benefits and education and housing subsidies for all citizens. The unemployment rate is as high as 43 per cent among Saudi citizens aged between 20 and 24.

There has, however, been no talk of political reforms. Municipal elections were scheduled to be held in 2009 but got postponed. The 150-member parliament is appointed by the King. The Shia population in the oil-producing east, adjacent to Bahrain, remains marginalised.

The last serious threat to the Saudi monarchy was in 1979 when radical Islamists briefly took over the Grand Mosque of Mecca. In the same year, there was an uprising by Shias, which was brutally put down.

King Abdullah's counterparts in Morocco and Oman, King Mohammed and Sultan Qaboos, respectively, promised comprehensive democratic reforms after protests erupted in their kingdoms.

The GCC, which promptly denounced Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, has, however, endorsed the outside intervention to quell the democracy movement in Bahrain. The GCC Secretary General justified Saudi military intervention by saying that it was the collective responsibility of the GCC to safeguard the security of a member-state. U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who was in Bahrain recently as protesters were being tear-gassed and shot with rubber bullets, praised the Bahrain government for moving ahead with a process of reform while sustaining stability and continuity. Soon after he left, draconian emergency laws were imposed. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking after Saudi troops moved in, said that Bahrainis should take steps now to resolve the crisis.

The West's preoccupation

The West, as illustrated by its recent actions, seems only intent on dislodging Qaddafi and getting Libya's oil and securing its strategic interests in the region. Washington seems keen to soft-pedal on the crises being faced by pro-Western Arab governments, especially the oil-rich monarchies in the Gulf. However, the threat to the Libyan government seems to be fast receding as the rebel forces have retreated from most of the major towns they had captured. By mid-March, Libyan government forces had captured the strategic oil towns of Ras Lanuf and Brega. Only Benghazi, the country's second largest city, still remained in rebel hands.

Meanwhile, the calls for a no fly zone (NFZ) over Libya seem to be increasing by the day. Surprisingly, the Arab League, of which Libya is a member, has joined the chorus. Amr Moussa, the League's Secretary General, justified the call for a U.N.-mandated NFZ on the grounds that there were serious crimes being committed by the Libyan government against the civilian populace. At the same time, the League has remained silent on the violence by other governments in the region against unarmed civilians. It has also chosen to keep quiet on the Saudi intervention in Bahrain.

Saudi armoured personnel carriers headed for Bahrain, near the Bahrain-Saudi bridge in Manama on March 15.-HAMAD I MOHAMMED /REUTERS

Algeria and Syria were among the states that opposed foreign intervention in the internal affairs of a fellow member-state. But they were outvoted. In contrast to the dubious stance taken by the Arab League, the African Union (A.U.) has come out strongly against a NFZ over Libya. In a strong statement, the A.U. rejected any kind of foreign intervention in Libya and stressed that the Libyan people should be allowed to settle their differences peacefully.

Both the government forces and the opposition have been using heavy weaponry in the Libyan conflict. The opposition there has accused the government of using its planes to bomb their positions and target civilians. No clear evidence has been provided so far of the Libyan Air Force targeting civilian centres. With the opposition fast losing ground, France and the United Kingdom have been demanding a quick imposition of an NFZ. These two countries have thrown their weight behind the Arab League's call for an NFZ over Libya and demand for military intervention. It is an old trick adopted by the West, of first fomenting trouble in a country and then asking for military intervention.

The initial aim of the West was to bolster the rebels, who were at the time in control of key oil-producing centres. British elite Special Air Services (SAS) commandos were reportedly involved in helping anti-Qaddafi forces seize desert oil installations and launch attacks. In 1998, the British Intelligence Service MI6 tried unsuccessfully to assassinate Qaddafi in Benghazi in retaliation for the Libyan government's support for the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

In early March, the French government even formally recognised the rebel government in Benghazi. In the second week of March, President Nicolas Sarkozy went to the extent of advocating targeted air strikes at Libyan military installations. Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron issued a joint statement saying that the Libyan government had lost all legitimacy and to end the suffering of the Libyan people, Muammar Qaddafi has to leave.

The last time the French and the British cooperated so closely was during the Suez Crisis in 1956, and it ended disastrously for both countries. In the third week of March, the two countries tabled a resolution in the Security Council for an NFZ over Libya, citing the Arab League's support for such a move.

Influential European Union states such as Germany were not impressed by the sabre-rattling of Sarkozy and Cameron. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in a polite snub directed at the duo, said that European leaders must think over each step carefully and that she would like the E.U. to send out a uniform signal on the Libyan issue.

Her Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwille, said that states rather than interim governments should be recognised and that Europe should not allow itself to be drawn into a civil war. Calling for air strikes against the Qaddafi regime and recognising the rebel government has more to do with his [Sarkozy's] testosterone levels than with logical thinking, the German edition of Financial Times commented. The international community, after the initial show of unity over Libya in the Security Council, is divided over the introduction of the NFZ.

Russia and China have already expressed their disapproval of the idea. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said that the Libyan people should be allowed to settle their differences peacefully. China believes that Libya's internal matters should be decided by the Libyan people themselves, the spokesman said.

India and Brazil, which currently hold seats in the Security Council, are also not willing to go along with the West on the issue. Divisions seem to be deepening among Western powers.

The Foreign Ministers of India, Brazil and South Africa issued a joint statement after an IBSA meet in Delhi in the second week of March, emphasising that an NFZ on the Libyan airspace or any coercive measures can only be legitimately contemplated in full compliance with the U.N. Charter.

Robert Gates has warned that introducing a no fly zone is not going to be a cakewalk. He has said that to implement such a measure, Libyan airfields will first have to be bombed. The question is whether it is a wise thing to do, Gates told the media in mid-March.

James Clapper, U.S. Director of National Intelligence, admitted to the Senate that Qaddafi was hunkering down for a long fight and that a significant section of the Libyan Army remained loyal to him. He said that the Libyan Air Force strikes had mainly damaged buildings and infrastructure. This is a tacit admission that civilians were not unnecessarily targeted.

President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who had at the outset offered to mediate between the government and the rebels in Benghazi, has warned that it would be madness if the West intervened militarily in Libya. He said a war in Libya could push oil prices to $200 a barrel. The Venezuelan leader instead proposed that a humanitarian mission be sent to Libya to find a peaceful solution to the conflict.

The rebels in Libya have shown no interest in talking to the government and instead are still hoping that the West will intervene to bail them out. Chavez has accused the West of trying to seize control of Libya's oil.

In the second week of March, President Barack Obama said that the U.S. and the world community are slowly tightening their noose on Qaddafi. Chavez said that the West was deliberately distorting facts on the ground to prepare for military intervention. In its desperation, the Yankee empire is continuing and will continue to threaten nations that struggle for their dignity conspiring against governments, he said.

Cuba's Fidel Castro, in his latest Reflection, said that the world was witnessing the aftermath of two earthquakes, a natural one in Japan and a political earthquake in Libya, which could be potentially more serious. Both earthquakes, in one way or the other, will affect all countries, the Cuban leader wrote. I do not harbour any doubt that Qaddafi and the Libyan leadership erred in trusting Bush and NATO. Nor do I doubt the intention of the United States and NATO to militarily intervene in Libya and abort the revolutionary wave sweeping the Arab world, he wrote.

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