The ongoing wave of civil resistance in North Africa and the Arab World is now in its sixth month if December 2010 protests in Tunisia are to be considered a starting point. The ‘Arab Spring’ as it has been termed has so far brought an end to 23 years of dictatorship by Ben Ali in Tunisia, 30 years of dictatorial rule by Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and has inspired popular anti-authoritarian movements in Libya, Yemen and Bahrain, just to name a few. More importantly however, the months of anti-authoritarian protests have shattered the myth that people in the Middle East or in the Muslim World were somehow different, somehow peculiar in that Democracy was an alien concept and dictatorship was an intrinsic value in this part of the world. Another myth to have been busted is violence, inspired by Islamic fundamentalism, is the only path of dissent in the Muslim World.
However, as evident in Libya, Bahrain and Syria, dictatorships and long established state apparatus do not just give in to the demands of the people they rule but resort to the most violent means to suppress popular demands for people power. Unfortunately, increase in turmoil in the region has not been able to attract increased world attention. If news headlines and the frequency of reporting are anything to go by, global media has in fact scaled down their coverage of the ‘Arab Spring’ when compared to the interest in the events in Egypt.
AlJazeera, deemed to be on the side of the protesters and a pinnacle of reporting for the Middle East, provided vital and unprecedented coverage of revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia and the civil war in Libya to a global audience, but has as of late only done “sporadic and markedly neutral” reporting of the protests in Bahrain. Described as “an instrument of Qatari influence” in the 2009 US Embassy Cables leaked by Wikileaks, AlJazeera appears to be edging closer to that title as far as lack of vocal support and coverage of the events in Bahrain go. As condemned by veteran reporter Robert Fisk in today’s the Independent,
– shame of shame – silence from the Arabs who know where their bread is buttered. That means, of course, also silence from al-Jazeera.
Regional Rivalries and the Protests
The larger, more immediate threat to the Arab Spring comes from regional powers. The involvement of NATO in the Libyan Civil War has on the one hand saved the anti-Qaddafi forces from being obliterated but has on the other hand made the opposition cause void of being a movement solely of the Libyan people.
Shia rule over a majority Sunni population in Syria and Sunni rule over a majority Shia population in Bahrain has made the situation in both countries like alternate sides of the same coin. On the one hand in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia has militarily and financially backed the crackdown on Shia led protests. The AlSaud family run state sent tanks in March this year in support of self-proclaimed King Khalifa of Bahrain. This over fears that its regional rival Iran, a Shia state, could catalyze existential threats to Saudi Arabia right on its doorsteps in Bahrain and in its Shia majority Eastern provinces. In addition to that Wahhabi Islam, Saudi Arabia’s state religion deems Shias as heretics, any suppression of the Shias therefore becomes a holy suppression, if you will.
The situation in Syria is very similar. Dictator Bashar Al-Assad, son of dictator Hafiz Al-Assad, is an Alawite Shia. He rules a country with a majority Sunni population. Once protests broke out in March this year, Iran was quick to term them as “a Western plot“. Syria and Iran are already aligned by a defense pact signed in 2008 and Iran, a veteran of brutally suppressing popular protests, has a wide range of expertise to offer in service to Syria. Western diplomatic sources in Damascus have claimed that Iran is providing Bashar’s regime with “technical assistance to monitor and control emails sent by opposition groups trying to organise pro-democracy demonstrations across Syria”. Iran also has a plentiful supply of Basiji/Hezbolla-ite paramilitaries, militias infamous for their brutal methods during the state crackdown on the Green Movement in 2009. It remains to be seen whether Iran will sent boots on the ground to assist its dictator brethren in Syria, that is if they haven’t already done so.
It is worth noticing that Oil, that age old source of power and political bargaining for the Middle Eastern dictators and the catalyst for many war, is playing a crucial role in helping Iran and Saudi Arabia fight their proxy battles not only in Bahrain and Syria but in Iraq, Pakistan as well as on each others’ territories. Qatar, home to AlJazeera, is itself home to an absolute monarchy and serious human rights issues. Qatar’s oil and gas exports make up over 50% of its GDP and the major source of investment making it the richest country in the world by GDP based on both IMF and World Bank estimates. It is the Wests’ insatiable thirst of Middle Eastern Oil that has stimulated NATO’s extensive and prolonged involvement in Libya and has barred the West from criticizing state brutality in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain on the same level and principles on which it has criticized the “non-aligned” states in Libya and Syria. The case was beautifully summed up by Fisk in today’s the Independent:
What is this nonsense? Well, I will tell you. It has nothing to do with the Bahrainis or the al-Khalifas. It is all about our fear of Saudi Arabia. Which also means it is about oil. It is about our absolute refusal to remember that 9/11 was committed largely by Saudis. It is about our refusal to remember that Saudi Arabia supported the Taliban, that Bin Laden was a Saudi, that the most cruel version of Islam comes from Saudi Arabia, the land of head-choppers and hand-cutters. It is about a conversation I had with a Bahraini official – a good and decent and honest man – in which I asked him why the Bahraini prime minister could not be elected by a majority Shia population. “The Saudis would never permit it,” he said. Yes, our other friends. The Saudis.