President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. The question everyone is asking is, who is next to fall? And, perhaps the remaining dictators hold on to power. While facing many of the same demographics both economic and generational, these autocratic Arab nations are not all the same. However, never before have such widespread uprisings occurred in the Arab world, save maybe for the pan-Arab nationalism of Nasserism in the 1950s and 1960s. Unlike that period, which was reacting to the pain and indignity of a legacy of Western colonialism and the creation of the state of Israel, these protests have predominantly been focused internally, on their own leaders.
Bahrain is a small island kingdom in the Persian Gulf with the rough population of Dallas or San Diego. 54% of that population are non-nationals, coming largely from South Asia. It is perhaps best known in the West for its Grand Prix.
Bahrain’s history is incredibly complex, but has effectively been vied over since the 16th century by the proximate powers of Persia and Oman, and by the colonial Portuguese. Bahrain has periodically, for centuries at a time, been under Iranian rule since the 6th century BCE. It is in many ways the Sicily or Malta of the Persian Gulf.
In the late 18th Century the Al Khalifa family (آل, Āl here means house, and is not hyphenated like al-) of the Bani Utbah tribe wrested control of the island of Bahrain after an invasion from Zubarah in northern Qatar, in 1783. The Bani Utbah tribe was known for trade in dates, and according to legend, the Al Khalifa family is regarded, at least by the Iranians, as nothing but the descendants of pirates and pearl divers.
Regardless their pedigree, the House of Khalifa has ruled Bahrain ever since, with half of all cabinet positions currently filled by its members. In the early 19th century Bahrain signed a treaty with Britain, making it a protectorate. When Britain withdrew its troops and Bahrain gained independence, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was claiming the island (he had already caused a stir by seizing Abu Musa and the Tunbs from the United Arab Emirates), to which Emir Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa invited the Americans to set up a naval base. In 1995, it became home to America’s Fifth Fleet.
The royal family is also Sunni in a 70% majority Shi’i country. There has been historical systematic disenfranchisement of the Shi’a, with periodic piecemeal parliamentary reforms since 1995 to appease their grievances. For all the reforms though, there were still revelations like the Bandargate scandal.
Back in 1994 there were widespread protests against the Bahraini government. The government struck back at the Bahrani (native Shi’a population), though it was in reality probably the first populist coalition comprising a whole political spectrum in the Middle East. The Al Khalifas were quick to point a finger to Iran and collaboration between the Qods Force and Bahraini Hizballah in fomenting and organizing protests. The Saudi’s amassed their National Guard on the King Fahd Causeway with the stern ultimatum that they would restore order if Manama couldn’t.
1994 was not without precedent. In 1981, the new Revolutionary government of Khomeini’s Iran had created the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution, with a mind on exporting the revolution throughout the region. 150 Shi’a plotting a coup were broken up in Bahrain that year. In 1997, after continued civil unrest, 36 people were convicted, after forced televised confessions of a similar plot. And the coup fears did not end there. This is the most recent from fall 2010.
While Iranian hegemonic aspirations and perceived entitlement to their “14th Province” should provoke reasonable suspicion, to brush off a populist uprising in the 1990s and today as such would be exaggerating their influence. The 1990s closed with concessions of reform after the accession of Isa bin Salman by his son, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa in 1999. In 2002, he declared himself king, dropping the title of emir and reintroduced parliamentary elections.
The current contesting of the royal family’s power brings to mind this prescient warning from Robert Baer’s 2008 book The Devil We Know,
There used to be a saying, “As goes Egypt, so goes the Middle East.” It might be more apt to say, “As goes Bahrain, so goes the Persian Gulf.”
And as Gary Sick has pointed out on PBS Newshour,
You know, Bahrain is tied to Saudi Arabia almost like umbilical cord. There is a causeway that runs across from the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, where all of the oil is, and runs over to Bahrain, which is a 70 percent Shia population.
As it happens, the population of the eastern province of Saudi Arabia is also Shia dominantly. And I think the Saudis are really frightened that the kinship relationships between the Shia in Bahrain is going to spill over that causeway and affect the Shia in their country.
It was no accident that some of the stories we heard out of the crackdown in Bahrain at Pearl Roundabout and then at Salmaniya Hospital, including one ambulance driver having a gun held to their head, included accusations of brutal Saudi security involvement. For more on the current situation in Bahrain and its background I recommend this article from Middle East Report.
(Free Libya Flag)
Some grade school kids might know this country because they chose to do a report on it for its easily reproduced flag, designed by the Colonel himself (protesters are using the old flag). Well, Hitler he’s not in the regard to graphic design. In any case I’ll try my best to do better than a school report in a cursory history of the nation. ليبيا, lībiyā, by the way, is not a true palindrome, but ain’t it symmetrical?
Neolithic Berbers have lived in what is now Libya since at least the 9th century BCE. The Phoenicians settled there in the 7th, and established the Punic cities of Oea, Libdah, and Sabratha; collectively known as Τρίπολις, Tripolis, the Three Cities. In the East, the Greeks would in the 7th century BCE establish Cyrene (near present-day third largest city of Libya, Al-Bayda), and Euesperides (later renamed Berenice, and now the second-largest city of Benghazi). The Romans ruled Libya from the 1st century BCE until the Vandal conquest in the 5th century CE. It was an important source of goods and livestock for Rome, including the fabled silphium. From these ancient times three traditional regions are still representative to some extent of Libyan geography: Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan. (It is the former Greek eastern part, Cyrenaica, which appears to have fallen out of Gaddafi’s hands.)
After the the Vandals, Libya passed through the hands of the Byzentines until the Arab Islamic Conquest defeated all Berber resistance and was absorbed into the Umayyad then Abbasid Caliphates, and then a series of more localized Arab and Berber kingdoms and caliphates, Sunni and Shi’a (Fatimids). Then followed the Ottomans, Barbary states (of Marine Hymn fame), Ottomans again, and Italians (including Erwin Rommel and the Siege of Tobruk). Modern Libya gained independence after World War II with King Idris assuming power from 1951 to 1969 until in a bloodless coup d’état, the 27 year old Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi and his officers toppled the king. (a note on the transliteration of Gaddafi’s name here, and here. I once had a flow chart, but let’s just say معمر القذافي is the easiest way to spell it.)
The new silphium was black gold, discovered in 1959. As a result of distributing the wealth from that oil, Gaddafi can actually take credit for the highest human development index score in Africa. What Gaddafi can’t take credit for is being a champion of democracy or toleration of dissent, and his rule has been marked by torture and internal assassinations. The Telegraph‘s Con Coughlin writes,
Indeed, the current unrest was provoked by the arrest earlier this week of a prominent human rights lawyer who was campaigning on behalf of the families of the Libyan prisoners who were killed during the infamous revolt at Abu Salim prison in 1996. Even by the standards of the regime’s well-documented brutality, the events at Abu Salim were horrific.
And don’t forget the egomaniacal hallmarks. For example, like Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book and Saparmurat Niyazov’s Ruhnama, Gaddafi has his Green Book. It is so iconic to his rule that toppling representations of them in Benghazi has become a symbol of this February 17 uprising.
The rest is relatively well known, especially as regarding Libyan-US relations. Lockerbie, UTA Flight 722, the Berlin disco bombing of 1986, and more, including the near decade war with Chad. Not only has Gaddafi supported and contracted terrorism, but he regretted losing his good friends Ben Ali and Mubarak, which is highly ironic coming from someone who gained power as an uncompromising revolutionary. His government is a bare bones dictatorship with little pretense of political freedom. Gaddafi is the Supreme Guide of the Revolution, there are no parties.
Before this uprising, perhaps the most intrigue in Libya was the intense rivalry between Gaddafi sons Muatassim and Saif al-Islam over succession of their father; or parties with Beyoncé and a voluptuous Ukranian nurse. On Sunday, Febraury 20th, it seemed Saif was the true chip off the old blockhead when he gave a rambling speech which could have come from no less than Glenn Beck’s mentally unbalanced conspiracies: ‘Zionists are feeding the kids LSD to establish an Islamist emirate’ was the basic gist of it.
The crackdown and militant nature of the protesters in Libya is so far unprecedented in the Arab revolts. The death tolls and videos are truly horrific. And the military and tribal alliances of the state are fracturing, though tribal identity should not necessarily be overplayed. Indeed, the army has also long been kept weak on purpose, with Gaddafi relying instead on militias loyal to him and mercenaries.
It might be a good time for Gaddafi’s virginal Amazonian Guards to take their lipstick and run. However this turns out, I don’t think Gaddafi will go to The Hague willingly.
Yemen is an incredibly ancient land, originally home exclusively to Semitic peoples, the Sabaeans mentioned in the Qur’an, and according to legend, often tied to Sheba of the Bible. The Abbysinian (Ethiopian) Kebra Nagast even adds to this legend. And coffee lovers, according to another legend, you have Yemeni Sufis to thank for that buzz, as well as the port city of Mocha.
Since ancient times, Yemen has been at the crossroads of a spice route and under the rule of local kingdoms like the Himyarites, and foreign powers such as the Abbysinians, Persians (Sassanids), Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates, briefly the Portuguese, and the Ottomans. In a line of imperialists, the British Colony of Aden there is perhaps most well known to modern readers. To the East India Company and British Empire, Aden also provided a much needed geostrategic link to India, as well as a way to stanch piracy through the Gulf of Aden and Arabian Sea. From this colonial outpost we get the “Barren Rocks of Aden”, so called because of the geology of the town.
To quote Arthur Rimbaud, the French wunderkind poet turned explorer, trader, and even gun runner,
You have no idea what it’s like here. There isn’t a single tree, not even a withered one, not a single blade of grass, patch of earth or drop of fresh water. Aden is the crater of an extinct volcano the bottom of which is filled with sea-sand. There’s absolutely nothing to see or touch except lava and sand which are incapable of producing the tiniest scrap of vegetation. The environs are an absolutely arid desert of sand. Here, however, the walls of the crater prevent the air from entering, and we roast at the bottom of this hole as if in a limekiln.
It should be noted that Rimbaud was a broken man at this time, and when he wrote of being a prisoner of Aden, I think he also felt a prisoner of himself, and of his past fame. Nevertheless, it is also a vivid image of Aden, however bleak or unfair. This was no paradise. It is definitely not Ta’izz or the island of Socotra.
In 1963 a revolution began which overthrew the British Protectorates of South Arabia. By 1967 they gained their independence, and three years later in 1970 founded the Communist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, or, South Yemen. It’s capital was Aden. In 1990, North and South Yemen were united.
Sana’a was the capital of North Yemen, and is the current capital of united Yemen where most of the protests are happening in the other Tahrir Square. It’s high elevation gives it one of the mildest temperatures in the region, and that’s probably a factor for it being continuously inhabited since the 6th century BCE.
The North’s history wasn’t as mild as Sana’a’s climate though. It too had a civil war from 1962 until 1970, when the Mutawakkilite Kingdom was overthrown. It was a Cold War struggle with the royalist Saudis backing King Muhammad Al-Badr and the Socialist Nasser government aligned with the republicans in what in effect was a proxy war. It was to be to Egypt what Vietnam was to America in terms of losses, though their side ended up victorious.
After unification, the Southern leader Ali Salim al-Bayd, who had been acting as Vice President, pulled out in 1993 citing unresolved grievances. The South seceded and another civil war, this time between the Northern and Southern Yemeni factions began in 1994. President Ali Abdullah Saleh would come out victorious, with the backing of the Saudis, and he has been the strongman of the Republic of Yemen ever since, though encountering another Southern insurgency in 2009-2010.
But the complexity of Yemen doesn’t end there. It is also home to a significant Shi‘a population, of the Zaidi sect, also known as the Fivers, which form up to 45% of the population in Yemen (President Saleh himself is Zaidi, but not sectarian). The Zaidis are centered in the northwest of the country.
In 2004 there was a Shi’i insurgency, known as the Houthis, after their commander Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi. In what became another proxy war, Saudi Arabia again supported the Yemeni government against the Houthis, themselves allegedly backed by the Iranian Qods Force. The grievances of the Sa’dah-based Houthis were in part due to the neglect they felt from Wahhabi inflence in Sana’a's policies.
On the other side of the sectarian divide is Abdul Majeed al-Zindani and the Islamist (Salafi) Al-Islah Party, the main opposition to President Saleh and active in organizing the current protests against him. Add to this Zindani’s connections to Al-Qa’ida and the presence of the American national Anwar al-Maliki and other active radical Sunni clerics bent on the pro-Western government’s fall, and there are valid concerns for Western intelligence analysts.
President Saleh’s promise to step down may be too little too late. He made that same promise before the 2006 presidential election, as well. Back then, a united front of Al-Islah and the Socialists stood behind Faisal bin Shamlan, a technocrat. They were defeated in an election marred by violence and fraud.
What should be evident by now is that of all the countries in revolt, Yemen remains my biggest question mark. While Saif al-Islam Gaddafi is warning of a civil war in Libya, I hold more concern about Yemen, which is a veritable powder keg. However; the possibility of failed state status for both is very real.
(or the lack thereof)
I haven’t attempted to cover the current protests or fluid developments in the article itself. There is simply too much information coming out all the time. Below, as with my previous Egypt article, I will instead offer daily updates in the regular posting of comments.
Also welcome are your own updates, comments and links, including any information on other countries. I’m still monitoring developments and situations in Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Sudan, Jordan, Syria, Iran, Iraqi Kurdistan, Kuwait and even Djibouti! Furthermore, the stories of Tunisia and Egypt aren’t over yet, either. Here is an interactive map of countries affected.
What is evident is that the toppling of Mubarak on February 11th has reinvigorated the Arab protests (I’m still treating Iran slightly differently). A slogan made famous in Tahrir Square, Cairo, can be heard rising into the air of these countries, as well.
الشعب يريد إسقاط النظام
Ash-sha’b yurīd isqāt an-niẓām
The people demand an end to the regime