News roundup — April 23

Syrian security forces fire on mourners in several towns

Syrian security forces fired their weapons into crowds of mourners in at least three towns on Saturday as tens of thousands of people buried protesters who were killed a day earlier in the worst bloodshed since the uprising began last month. Human rights activists and witnesses said at least 11 people were killed on Saturday.

The death toll from the protests on Friday, one of the bloodiest days in the so-called Arab Spring, had risen by Saturday to 109 people, a number that activists said was likely to rise as more bodies were returned to their families. Another group said 114 people had been killed.

The bloodshed on Saturday followed a pattern seen frequently in the tumult that has swept the Arab world. Funerals have often turned to demonstrations, where more have been killed by security forces bent on crushing dissent against authoritarian leaders. While Saturday’s death toll paled in comparison with the number killed on Friday, it suggested that the country might be entering a prolonged period of turmoil as protesters continue to press the greatest challenge to the Assad family’s four decades of rule.

President Bashar al-Assad’s government has struggled to cope with the unrest, offering concessions that would have been startling at one time, while using violence against those who persist in demonstrations. Though the revolt has drawn large numbers into the streets since it started on March 15, it has yet to achieve the critical mass of revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. However, organizers say they believe the bloodshed may draw more people into the uprising’s fold.

In a possible sign of cracks in the government’s facade, two members of Syria’s largely powerless Parliament resigned on Saturday. The two, Khalil al-Rifai and Nasser al-Hariri, both independent lawmakers from Dara’a, where the uprising started, told Al Jazeera that they were resigning to protest the killing of demonstrators. (New York Times)

Syria: Assad has sealed his fate

The first person to file an application under Syria’s new law “permitting” demonstrations – Fadel al-Faisal from Hassakeh in the north-east of the country – ended up being detained for several hours by the authorities, the Guardian reports.

That, basically, tells us everything we need to know about President Assad’s so-called reforms. The regime hasn’t changed its attitude, and it isn’t going to change. Though the law – at least in theory – now allows Syrians to protest, complying with the requirements is extremely difficult and its overall effect is to criminalise any demonstrations that the authorities disapprove of. (Brian Whitaker)

Libyan forces withdraw from a besieged city, and the rebels wonder why

Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces have withdrawn from most of the besieged city of Misurata, rebel spokesmen and independent observers said Saturday, but they continued to fire artillery barrages into the heart of the city, with heavy loss of life.

Rebel leaders were puzzling over whether the move was an abrupt change in their fortunes, a subterfuge by pro-Qaddafi forces who might return in plainclothes under the guise of a tribal conflict, or a redeployment to new fronts in the mountains along the western border with Tunisia.

Rebels in Misurata, speaking over Internet phone, said that Colonel Qaddafi’s soldiers had disappeared from all but two buildings, where they were besieged while rebels demanded their surrender. Captured Libyan soldiers told Reuters that they had been ordered to withdraw, which would correspond to a plan the government announced Friday to turn the fighting there over to tribal supporters.

NATO announced that the first airstrike by a Predator drone had taken place in the Misurata area, and rebels said it destroyed government tanks stationed at the city’s vegetable market, which had been heavily contested just the day before.

Rebels were encouraged by Saturday’s developments and celebrations broke out in the provisional rebel capital of Benghazi, in the east, but there were no celebrations in Misurata, where hundreds have been killed in two months of violence. On Saturday, doctors said 24 had died and 70 were wounded, most of them civilians caught in artillery barrages.

Libya’s deputy foreign minister, Khaled Kaim, announced Friday night that the Libyan army would turn the battle for Misurata over to area tribes, some of which may have historical rivalries with the people of the city. One rebel said they already feared that the Qaddafi government was trying to inflame tribal animosities by telling residents of the nearby cities of Zliten and Bani Walid that their relatives had been killed by Misurata residents. (New York Times)

How ‘rebel’ phone network evaded shutdown

On February 17, Ahmed el-Mahdawi’s duty engineer called him from the Libyana mobile phone company’s switch room in Benghazi’s Fuihat neighbourhood. Military and internal security forces had begun brutally repressing anti-government protesters in Libya’s second-largest city, and gunfire rang out through the darkened streets.

“Ahmed, it’s dangerous, I’m going home,” the man said.

Ahmed told him to go. The man closed down the office, locked the door and left. The team would return five days later. In the meantime, protesters overthrew the city’s military garrison and ousted forces loyal to longtime Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Hundreds of civilians were killed and injured.

As the violence raged, Gaddafi’s regime severed eastern Libya’s communication with the outside world, blocking internet access and international phone calls. News of the brutal crackdown leaked out through rare satellite Internet connections that allowed residents to make intermittent Skype calls, MSN chats, and sometimes upload mobile phone videos. Occasionally, an international call connected to a voice in Benghazi.

Through luck and ingenuity, Libyana, one of the country’s two main mobile phone providers, managed to stay online, providing free service throughout the uprising and allowing members of the opposition movement to communicate with one other.

Now, more than two months after the revolt began, and with eastern cities poised to soon regain internet access and international calls, Mahdawi and other local engineers explained how they kept the lines open and why they are upset that a Libyan-American executive living in the United Arab Emirates seems to have gotten all the credit. (Al Jazeera)

“It’s funny, but Gaddafi brought out the best in us”: Social solidarity and the Libyan revolution

Everyone in opposition-held territory seems to have a story about how much nicer people are to one another now that Gaddafi is gone. “Before the revolution, you’d go out into the street and find a bunch of angry people,” says Shawg, the anesthesiologist. “They’d be taking it out on each other — you’d find a lot of fights on the street, people saying bad stuff to each other, or even [getting angry at one another while] driving. Sometimes you’d find people just fighting for the sake of fighting. Everyone was in a bad mood, all the time.”

“But after the revolution,” she continues, “we discovered that all the anger, all the negative feelings … were toward Muammar [Gaddafi] and his system. We discovered that we don’t have problems with each other — we only have a problem with the system, not with our neighbor or the guy in the market.”

The goodwill extended to taking pride in the city. Mardiya El-Fakhery, a 28-year–old anesthesiologist, recalls that before the revolution, “you’d never see Libyan boys cleaning up the street and taking ownership [of their city]. People had the attitude that [Benghazi] is already [dirty], so just let it go.” But as soon as the revolution began, she saw young boys and old men taking to the streets with brooms. The opposition government has sought to build on this goodwill around the territory their control, posting billboards throughout eastern Libya exhorting citizens to keep their cities clean. (Ryan Calder)

President of Yemen offers to resign for immunity

Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, agreed on Saturday to leave power after 32 years of autocratic rule, according to a top Yemeni official, but only if the opposition agrees to a list of conditions, including that he and his family be granted immunity.

Opposition leaders said they were prepared to accept most of the terms of the deal, which both they and a Yemeni official said would establish a coalition government with members of the opposition and ruling party. The president would turn over authority to the current vice president 30 days after a formal agreement was signed.

But the opposition said it could not guarantee at least one of Mr. Saleh’s demands — that demonstrations be halted — and opposition members said they would quickly present a counteroffer to the president. The opposition said it had little influence with the tens of thousands of mainly young protesters who have been demanding Mr. Saleh’s departure.

Even if the opposition and the government agree to a deal, it is unclear if the demonstrators will go along, especially after pro-government snipers brutally crushed a protest on March 18, killing 52.

Mr. Saleh is a wily political survivor, and it was unclear whether his offer was a real attempt to calm the political turmoil and growing demonstrations that have rocked his country for weeks or a way to shift blame for a stalemate to the opposition. His offer follows days of unrelenting pressure — from Saudi Arabia and other neighboring states fearful of more instability in the region — for him to step aside. (New York Times)

Women have emerged as key players in the Arab spring

In a small room in Benghazi some young men and women are putting out a new opposition newspaper. “The role of the female in Libya,” reads one headline. “She is the Muslim, the mother, the soldier, the protester, the journalist, the volunteer, the citizen”, it adds.

Arab women can claim to have been all these things and more during the three months of tumult that have shaken the region. Some of the most striking images of this season of revolt have been of women: black-robed and angry, a sea of female faces in the capitals of north Africa, the Arabian peninsula, the Syrian hinterland, marching for regime change, an end to repression, the release of loved ones. Or else delivering speeches to the crowds, treating the injured, feeding the sit-ins of Cairo and Manama and the makeshift army of eastern Libya.

But as revolt turns into hiatus and stalemate from Yemen to Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Bahrain and Syria, one thing is clear: for all their organising, marching, rabble-rousing, blogging, hunger-striking, and, yes, dying, Arab women are barely one small step forwards on the road to greater equality with their menfolk. Women may have sustained the Arab spring, but it remains to be seen if the Arab spring will sustain women. (The Guardian)

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One thought on “News roundup — April 23

  1. Norman

    There lessons to be learned here. Whether they will end up being peaceful or not, is another thing.

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