Intifada update

Western policymakers shouldn’t accept this Saleh spin

U.S. halted record aid deal as Yemen rose up
As the Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, cracks down with increasing violence against peaceful protesters, his regime and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) both repeat the same mantra: political unrest in Yemen is good for al-Qaida.

The US has also suggested that this reading of events is warranted. Defence secretary Robert Gates stated: “We’ve had counter-terrorism co-operation with President Saleh and the Yemeni security services … So if that government collapses, or is replaced by one that is dramatically more weak, then I think we’d face some additional challenges out of Yemen, there’s no question about it.”

But Yemeni politics is anything but a zero-sum game. First, President Saleh has not been a particularly reliable ally on counterterrorism matters, and neither is he the only force standing between Yemen as it is now and Yemen as a jihadi state. In fact, many Yemenis believe that the AQAP organisation is little more than a myth or, at least, part of a cynical plot by the regime to maintain power. (Sarah Phillips)

The U.S. was on the verge of launching a record assistance package to Yemen when an outbreak of protests against its president led Washington to freeze the deal, officials say, marking a sharper turn in U.S. policy there than the administration has previously acknowledged.

The first installment of the aid package, worth a potential $1 billion or more over several years, was set to be rolled out in February, marking the White House’s largest bid at securing President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s allegiance in its battle against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group behind the failed underwear bombing in 2009 and the foiled air-cargo bombing plot in October.

For Mr. Saleh, the money would help shore up his shaky political position and reward the risks he took by bucking popular opinion and letting U.S. Special Forces hunt down militants inside his country.

But before the first check could be written, anti-Saleh protesters took to the streets of San’a in an echo of antiregime demonstrations sweeping the region. The Obama administration’s suspension of the new aid put a spotlight on the unraveling of a troubled anti-terror alliance with a man who has ruled Yemen like a family fiefdom for three decades.

The U.S. reversal was the latest and largest episode in an up-and-down history with Mr. Saleh. Throughout much of the last decade, according to U.S. officials, his commitment to cooperating with the U.S. in the hunt for al Qaeda in his country was questionable. By the end of 2009, the U.S. had become encouraged by his willingness to let the U.S. battle the group. But relations foundered a few months later after a U.S. missile strike killed a Saleh envoy. (Wall Street Journal)

Essential readings — Bahrain: origins of the crisis
When I lived in Bahrain a few years ago, the Pearl monument was for me a reliable landmark that helped me navigate the streets of Manama in my rented compact car. Standing 300 feet high, the single white pearl was supported by six dhow sails, representing the six member countries of the GCC who share the heritage of the gulf seafaring culture. The pearl symbolized the Bahraini people’s past as renowned pearl divers and merchants. That past extends back hundreds of years, before the formation of the GCC, before the arrival of the Al Khalifa, before the arrival of European colonial powers looking to secure control over the vibrant Gulf trade. When Bahrainis began to take part in the recent “Arab Spring” sweeping the region, they chose the Pearl Roundabout, named after the monument, as their rallying point. Like demonstrators elsewhere, the Bahraini protesters gathered for political and economic reasons: greater political participation, more jobs, less corruption. Unlike demonstrators elsewhere, Bahrainis faced an additional challenge: the deliberate, carefully calculated political, economic, and social oppression of the kingdom’s Shii majority population by the ruling Sunni Al Khalifa.

Whether the Pearl Roundabout had been chosen by protesters because of its symbolism, its proximity to the Shii villages from which many demonstrators came, or simply because it is the only public space in Manama large enough to host such a rally, the Roundabout today is ripe with symbolism. Much like the hopes and aspirations of those who stood freely in this space to ask for their right to participate in their country’s future, the monument has been destroyed and bulldozed away by order of the Al Khalifa, leaving an ugly scar where the proud monument once stood. The ugliness does not end there: in order to silence these voices, the Al Khalifa called in Saudi troops, arrested bloggers, and confiscated many of those wounded in the demonstrations from their hospital beds and reportedly interrogated, insulted, and tortured them, some to death. Just as disturbing, if not more so, are reports that the U.S., whose 5th Fleet Navy base is located in Manama, cut a deal with Saudi leaders to refrain from criticizing Bahrain’s handling of the protests in exchange for Saudi Arabia’s, and thus the Arab League’s, agreement on operations in Libya.

What are we to make of this heartbreaking outcome of the Bahraini Spring? The following sources offer readers some historical background of the current crisis. This background was not easy to come by. Partly due to its small size, and partly due to its location in a generally understudied region (the Gulf), Bahrain has not received much scholarly attention. Archaeologists have examined its past as the possible seat of the ancient Dilmun civilization, naturalists have studied its flora and fauna, and scholars of the British empire have written about its status as a British protectorate, but few scholars have examined its more recent social or political history. Of those who have, I have chosen the works that best help explain the origins of the current crisis. Also included in this list are sources that present analysis of the international significance of the events currently taking place in Bahrain. For example, a claim that has been repeatedly bandied about by the Al Khalifa is that the mostly Shii demonstrators are taking their cues from Iran. That there is little basis for this claim, and that in fact Bahraini Shiis’ concerns have been decidedly local, has not allayed the fears of Sunnis in the region, or of the U.S.

Today, Bahrainis continue to gather in public to seek justice and greater freedom, despite brutal crackdowns implemented not only by their own government’s forces, but also those of foreign nations. For the interested reader, these few sources will provide a glimpse into Bahrain’s past as a vibrant center of commercial life, transnational trade, and Shii intellectual thought. The era of Al Khalifa rule is also explored here, as well as references to the specific actions, policies, and events that led to the current conflict. For example, while reading the first paragraph of Munira Fakhro’s analysis of the uprising of the 1990’s, one is struck by the similarities between the issues at stake and the response of the state then and that of now, twenty-one years later. This is despite the government’s claims that Bahrain has entered an era of reform. As for Bahrain’s future, analysts here suggest that all depends on the Al Khalifa’s willingness to finally institute real political reform. As long as the U.S. agrees to turn a blind eye and Saudi forces remain on Bahraini soil, regrettably, there is little hope of such an outcome. (Sandy Russell Jones)

Bahrain: free prominent opposition activist
Bahrain authorities should immediately release prominent opposition and rights activist Abdul Hadi al-Khawaja, or bring him before an independent judge and charge him with a recognizable offense, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch also called on authorities to allow an independent medical doctor immediate and unconditional access to al-Kahawaja, 50, whom witnesses say was badly beaten by riot police when they raided his daughter’s home in the predawn hours of April 9, 2011. Al-Khawaja, an opposition and rights activist, has worked for national and international human rights organizations, including the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and Dublin-based Front Line.

“The brutal beating of rights activist Abdul Hadi al-Khawaja by police during a warrantless predawn raid adds cruelty on top of illegality,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “He should be released immediately.” (Human Rights Watch)

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