The revolutions in the Arab world show no sign of dying down. The instability is most affecting allies of the U.S. with escalating tension in Yemen and Bahrain and the spread of instability throughout the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia. Fortunately, there is growing dissent in Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, Syria and Sudan. It is unclear where the region is headed but it is certain that a decisive moment in its history has been reached.
The world’s attention right now is focused on the civil war in Libya, where Qaddafi’s forces have regained the momentum and recaptured Bin Jawad, Ras Lanuf, Brega and could soon threaten Benghazi, the capital of the opposition. Qaddafi has hired a large number of foreign mercenaries. When one of his military’s planes was shot down, the body of a Syrian pilot was found. The Arab League has endorsed a no fly zone but that may not be enough to stop the rebels from losing or reaching a shaky stalemate. The opposition is asking for targeted airstrikes and French President Sarkozy is suggesting limited bombing raids.
The uprisings in Yemen and Bahrain are becoming more intense. Over the weekend, Yemeni President Saleh’s security forces attacked protesters in the capital, killing between two and four people on Saturday and one to five people on Sunday. The police are using tear gas that is hospitalizing protesters who are now holding up banners comparing Saleh to Iraq’s Chemical Ali. Members of Saleh’s party continue to resign and he has promised to oversee the writing of a new constitution that will create an independent parliament and judiciary but the opposition will not renege on its demands for his resignation. The violence over the weekend will likely cause a backlash, prompting one expert on Yemen to say of Saleh, “This is his final dance.”
There was also violence in Bahrain on Sunday when demonstrators clashed with police for two hours when they tried to break through barricades on a main road in Manama. The protesters are becoming more aggressive, entering the financial district in disregard of the police’s orders and having a stand-off with the police when they tried to march on the royal palace. Some have written signs in English to express their dissatisfaction with America’s ties to the government outside the U.S. embassy.
The Bahraini opposition says it is not sectarian in nature but clashes between Sunnis and Shiites have started. The protesters are calling for the deportation of foreign Sunnis given citizenship by the government. The Shiite opposition also says it has no relationship with the Iranian government and is fighting for genuine democracy, but when there were reports of Saudi tanks arriving in Bahrain, one hardline opposition leader said foreign intervention would give them “the right to appeal for help from Iran.”
There was a lot of worry last week about a planned “Day of Rage” in Saudi Arabia on March 11. In the days leading up to the event, Saudi security forces fired rubber bullets to disperse 200 Shiite demonstrators in the Eastern Province and top clerics told the population not to participate. The “Day of Rage” was ultimately thwarted by a huge security presence and a ban on all demonstrations but two days later, dozens gathered in front of the Interior Ministry to demand the release of jailed relatives.
Other Gulf allies are seeing their people rise up in larger amounts, especially in Oman. Sultan Qaboos bin Said is reacting to fierce protests in Sohar with concessions such as adding government jobs and firing three high-level officials. Over the weekend, he also agreed to give more power to the state council. Hundreds of Kuwaitis rallied to try to force the sacking of the Prime Minister and 200 Bedouins demonstrated for more rights later in the week. Weekly protests led by the Muslim Brotherhood are slowly growing in Jordan. About 150 academics and former officials have signed a petition in the United Arab Emirates for reform.
American allies in North Africa are also feeling the heat. Protests have dwindled in Algeria but 10-20,000 police officers recently protested for higher wages. King Mohammed VI of Morocco has reacted to protests of hundreds on March 6 by giving a rare address to announce a commission to study reforms that will include giving power to regional authorities and free parliamentary elections. Protests are planned for March 20.
The enemies of the U.S. are not entirely immune, however. In the Gaza Strip, Hamas is under increasing pressure. On February 28, it dispersed dozens of protesters calling for a unity government with Fatah, the release of political prisoners and greater freedoms. Hundreds protested in favor of unity on March 6, resulting in 6 arrests. Hamas announced a minor government reshuffle and made an offer for a unity government to the Palestinian Authority but it was rejected. Protests are planned in both Gaza and the West Bank this week starting on March 15.
The Syrian government has been very successful in preventing an uprising but there are growing expressions of dissatisfaction. On March 7, 13 political prisoners in Adra began a hunger strike. One day later, a leading human rights activist was pardoned and a dozen Syrian groups called for an end to discrimination against Kurds and freedom for human rights groups. Dozens of jailed Kurds have now joined the hunger strike. A Facebook group calling for a protest on March 15 has been set up but it is unclear how much support for it is coming from inside Syria. Notably, four Syrians in Beirut who passed out fliers in front of the Syrian embassy have gone missing.
On March 14, tens of thousands of Lebanese protested in Beirut in favor of the disarmament of Hezbollah. The terrorist group did not publicly address the rallies, though banners were seen that said, “Israel also wants Hezbollah disarmed.” There were smaller protests in favor of secularism and against Hezbollah in the two weeks leading up to this event.
Protests also continue to pop up in Sudan against the Omar Bashir regime. An opposition coalition called the National Consensus Forces is calling on the people to follow in the footsteps of the Tunisians and Egyptians and over 50 protesters were arrested on March 9. The next day, about 200 recent college graduates who have been unable to find jobs protested.
The Arab Spring is undoubtedly more threatening to the friends of the United States than to its enemies. Each regime’s main problem is now its own people and not Israel or Iran and each must decide whether to use excessive force to squash its opponents or to try to placate them. The governments of the Middle East are now doing a delicate balancing act and one wrong move could affect them all.