Arab protesters witnessed an organized counteroffensive by counter-revolutionary forces over the past week. The following events only describe the last 48 hours of selected uprisings.
Syria: Arab League scam on repeat
Judging from the foreign response to the Arab League’s approved sanctions against Syria, the League continues to deceive a powerful segment of the international audience. Today, after meeting in Cairo, 19 representatives voted in favor of economic sanctions and travel restriction against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, “fulfilling” a threat that stood throughout his November crackdown. The League’s moves have been described as “an unprecedented step against an Arab country” by governments and media alike.
Relatively speaking, the Arab League has taken extraordinary action by publicly reprimanding a fellow member - except the League’s concern disappears beneath the surface.
For starters, economic analysts question the influence of sanctions beyond their psychological effect; no sanctions, AL or UN, can isolate the regime from its allies so long as he retains their political approval. “Iran and Russia are also expected to provide aid to Syria to make up for lost revenues,” reports the New York Times. Roughly 50% of Syrian trade comes within the Arab world, leaving room to find new global customers, and neighbors Iraq and Lebanon won’t enforce the League’s sanctions. Both have extensive business ties with Syria due to their population overflows.
"Iraq has reservations about this decision,” Deputy Foreign Minister Labeed Abbawi said. “For us, this decision... will harm the interests of our country and our people as we have a large community in Syria.”
Amid the Arab League lenient sanctions and the prospect of new UN action, al-Assad continues his delegitimization process against Syrian pro-democracy movement. Manipulating the Free Syrian Army to slander all protesters as “terrorists,” “criminals,” or “rebels,” al-Assad believes he’s succeeding in leveraging the budding insurgency against Western intervention. However a revolution will often grow an armed wing in the face of relentless brutality, and possessing arms will aid the revolution’s long-term struggle. Neither al-Assad, his national supporters or foreign allies would have caved to a peaceful uprising.
The Arab League could still function as a useful conduit between Syria’s regime and Western powers, and guard against military intervention in the process. For now, though, the body has demonstrated limited willingness to aid Syria’s protesters, and has shrunk into the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) little brother. Its actions are the result of a body forced to act under pressure; approving sanctions simultaneously adds and relieves the burden of responsibility. Syria’s resulting drama works in the regime’s favor, shielding al-Assad from resignation and turning the entire world into a bogeyman.
Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, accused the League itself of “interfering in Syria’s internal affairs,” when its general intention is to rescue al-Assad. Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby reminded him that the League would reconsider its vote if he accepted a political resolution negotiated in October. The proposal calls on al-Assad to withdraw his troops from cities but ends with a “dialogue” that the opposition must participate in.
Even though Syrian’s strongman cannot be negotiated with in good faith, Elaraby called on him "to quickly approve the Arab initiative.”
Bahrain: the King strikes back
The political battle over Bahrain’s Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), released this past Wednesday, is due to intensify beyond the country’s last major battle (July’s failed “National Dialogue”). Oppositional figures within Al Wefaq, Bahrain’s leading Shia party, kept their cards close and measured their stance during the BICI’s run-up, foreseeing a trap from the government. These developments unfolded over the weekend as King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa formed a “National Commission” to examine the BICI’s “recommendations” and “submit its own proposals.”
Despite naming several Shia figures from the political and economic spheres, only four of the 22 members represent oppositional forces, with two going to Al Wefaq. The discrepancy is similar to the King’s “National Dialogue,” during which oppositional figures received 30 out of 300 spots.
Al Wefaq, Waad and several smaller blocs immediately organized a press conference to reject the commission’s formation and mission. Jawad Fairooz said that Al Wefaq was “not consulted over who represent us,” and warned that the commission is “dominated by pro-government figures.” Justice, Islamic Affairs and Endowments Minister Shaikh Khalid bin Ali Al-Khalifa, himself appointed to the BICI's commission, slammed Al Wefaq for refusing to participate - even though the BICI implicated him in criminal cases. Instead of relating the corruption between the Kingdom’s “dialogue” and “commission,” Al-Khalifa held Al Wefaq responsible for scuttling both initiatives.
“The [dialogue] was killed by the opposition, not by us. Now the only thing on the table is the BICI recommendations, and the independent committee that will result from it.”
How appealing to the Shia protesters who chant “Down with King Hamad.”
“The Commission will end its work by the end of February in a framework of transparency," declared a royal decree from King Hamad. Unfortunately for the king, his artificial deadline to wind-down Bahrain’s 9-month uprising will likely pass beneath renewed hostilities. Repeated political maneuvers are eating away at Al Wefaq’s remaining confidence in the monarchy, and the last two weeks witnessed several oppositional funerals broken up with tear gas. In response, Al Wefaq’s political slogans are gradually aligning with the street’s demand for regime change.
“We will not work or co-operate with the present government, and we demand for its resignation,” Khalil Marzooq, a senior member of Al Wefaq, pledged to his supporters. “This government must resign, because it’s proved now that it has killed and tortured our citizens.”
Al Wefaq’s escalating rhetoric has visibly caught the attention of King Hamad and Washington. Bahrain’s foreign minister promptly informed the opposition that the “legitimate government appointed by the king” will continue its functions. Sheikh Khalid ibn Ahmad Al Khalifa also declined an offer for U.S. mediation, telling Al Arabiya on Sunday, “I have rejected the idea that a US diplomat mediate between the government of Bahrain and Al Wefaq Movement because communication channels are open to all parties.”
This news follows the leak of an alleged U.S. proposal to end Bahrain’s uprising in March. Citing oppositional sources, the Gulf Daily News claims that Al Wefaq and its oppositional alliance accepted the proposal to form an interim government. The price for entering into an unstable alliance with the King: withdraw protesters from the Pearl Roundabout in Manama. Having jumped onto the youth’s bandwagon in February, Al Wefaq still retains limited control of street protesters and is incapable of turning the faucet off.
Only genuine political reforms to the government’s structure can relieve Bahrain’s long-standing tensions, but the BICI remains focused on police and judicial reform.
Al Wefaq’s desperation to reach out is understandable. At the same time, US mediation can become a kiss of death to a national cause. Bahrain’s opposition should ask Palestinians and Yemenis how it feels to be on the wrong side of Washington’s negotiating table. The Obama administration isn’t offering to mediate on their behalf, but to preempt a concrete demands of regime change.
Yemen: democracy, American style
As if Yemen’s vast democratic movement would actually flinch, Ali Abdullah Saleh’s weekend return fulfilled the low expectations of many protesters and activists. Some protesters inside and outside of Yemen cautiously viewed the deal as a step forward towards removing Saleh’s regime and ending the country’s intense violence. Recent developments will serve to unify the youth/civil movement and hopefully spur new organization.
Saleh wasted no time acting as Yemen’s president upon his return to Sana’a. With many media sources still referring to Saleh as president and Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi as vice president, Yemen’s devious strongman granted limited amnesty for those who committed “errors” during the “crisis.” His offer presumably doesn’t extend to the al-Ahmar brothers, Islah’s leading financiers and Saleh's main political opponents. Feeling the streets’ pressure but refusing to step aside for the revolutionaries, Yemen’s oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) rejected Saleh’s “offer” as illegitimate.
He's currently busy cursing the JMP in a new speech.
Many protesters view the JMP itself as an unauthorized representative of their cause, and the bloc will continue making new enemies if it lays down to Saleh’s regime. Although many reports speculated that Hadi would serve as transitional president for a two-year period, the full extent of the GCC’s manipulation is revealing a one-man “election.” What were still considered rumors two days ago are now acknowledged fact. Mohammed Basindwa, Yemen’s new prime minister from the JMP, conceded that protesters won’t be happy with the arrangement, but insisted that the GCC’s way is “the only way.”
"We have to respect the right of the youth to protest peacefully, we have to listen to them closely, and we appreciate their disagreement with us," he said. "What is happening now is a partial change, but we hope that it will lead to a total change, God willing."
The GCC’s initiative hasn’t led to any changes yet, and even minor improvements are unlikely to blossom from a foreign-bankrolled plot. Saleh's regime and military remain intact, and unconfirmed local reports now position his son as Yemen's new Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior. Ahmed currently commands Saleh's Republican Guard, a U.S.-trained "counter-terrorism" unit tasked with violently suppressing Yemen's demonstrations and bombing oppositional tribesmen. Protesters demand his trial, not a political promotion.
Only a national initiative that serves the majority of Yemenis - not the minority interests of Saleh’s regime and foreign powers - will yield true democratic progress. Hadi just urged Yemenis to vote in the upcoming February election, provoking mockery across Yemeni forums. For now the revolutionaries, northern Houthi sect and Southern Movement all reject the GCC’s initiative as hostile to their causes.
Yemen’s message of regime alteration is approved by President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and White House counter-terrorism chief John Brennan.