Variance in Middle Eastern Uprisings: The Powder Kegs of Yemen and Bahrain

The Liberal Ironist’s previous update on developments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya expressed guarded optimism about post-regime reforms in Tunisia and Egypt and sought to offer some explanation about the dynamics of Libya’s civil war.  This continuation of that broad update on the Middle Eastern protests focuses on Yemen and Bahrain, 2 countries overshadowed by Colonel Gaddafi’s strange behavior and the violence in Libya.  Yemen and Bahrain are major United States foreign policy concerns, however, and while the momentum appears to be with the demonstrators in both countries, the situation remains volatile in both and revolutionary success in either country won’t necessarily lead to liberal governance.  Prospects for democracy in Bahrain are good in the event of regime change; prospects for chaos in Yemen are good.  This entry hopes to offer some explanation why.


Ongoing demonstrations in Yemen testify to the demonstration effect (pun intended) of the protests which compelled Mubarak’s resignation in Egypt; while Tunisian dissidents rightly claim the credit for proving that the rapid and (relatively) peaceful deposition of a consolidated dictatorship was possible, the fall of Mubarak in Egypt really made non-violent democratic revolution de jure in the Middle East.  The Wall Street Journal’s nifty Middle Eastern protest map indicates that scattered protests went on in Yemen for just over a week following Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s flight from Tunisia–then the country quieted down.  But the day after Egyptian President-for-life Hosni Mubarak’s abdication on February 11, anti- and pro-regime demonstrators brawled in the streets of Sana’a, the capital of Yemen.  Since that day, thousands or tens of thousands of protesters have gathered in the streets of Sana’a almost daily, regularly clashing with the police.  These protests became lethal on day 5, and have occasionally resulted in deaths since–a mine laid in a demonstration’s path here, soldiers opening fire on demonstrators there.

The big news in Yemen is the political emergence of Abdul Majid al-Zindani, a radical Islamist militant with a personal connection to Osama bin-Laden.  This militant cleric was previously a part of Yemeni president-for-life Ali Abdullah Saleh‘s own selectorate; now, as the New York Times reports, Zindani is calling for the people of Yemen to depose Saleh and create an Islamic state.  No one knows for certain whether Zindani has a major constituency or whether, his al-Qaeda associations aside, he will prove a minor irritant in Yemeni politics.  But in light of this country’s weak institutions and infrastructure, very conservative religious culture (even for this region), close proximity to Somalia and long border with Saudi Arabia, the growing protests here create an ambiguous political situation where regional, European and US security could all be threatened.

Zindani hasn’t been the only Yemeni public figure to jump off the Saleh bandwagon–far from it.  By now, 14 members of Saleh’s government have resigned and joined the calls for him to step down–including a spate of resignations on Saturday as reported in the Sunday Washington Post.  This bodes ill for him, as it suggests that political allies of Saleh who may share his experience and sense of political opportunity but perceive their political prospects to be untethered from his see the writing on the wall for him (though there is probably a threshold of official defections beyond which counting Saleh out becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy).

Last Tuesday, Saleh made an unsuccessful bid to rally support by appealing to Yemenis’ sense of national siege.  He claimed mounting protest movement in his country was sponsored by the governments of the United States and Israel.  This was showmanship, of course, and recognized by our State Department as such; according to the New York Times, on Wednesday Saleh called the White House to apologize to the President for these remarks.

Our government’s forgiveness of Saleh’s angry recriminations was a foregone conclusion; almost any plausible post-Saleh Yemen seems a disturbing prospect for US foreign and national security policymakers.  Yemenis themselves have a word for the worst-case senario: “Somalization,” the total collapse of a weak state led by a strongman into armed tribal factions that cannot provide public goods.  One contributor to the Yemen Times argued in November 2008 that the Somalization of Yemen is just a specter raised by the Saleh government to stifle debate about the manner in which he has consolidated power; however, our government is very unlikely to be assured by his claim that Yemen’s decentralized, contentious and heavily-armed society will remain in equilibrium without Saleh.  There is a tribal rebellion in the north (by the Houthis), calls for greater autonomy for coastal South Yemen, and a significant al-Qaeda encampment in remote parts of the -country that has drawn our government into its relationship with Saleh’s in recent years.  In light of Abdul Majid al-Zindani’s recent bid for influence with the Yemeni street–an outlier presence of radical Islamists during the recent Middle Eastern uprisings–the possibility of an al-Qaeda-friendly government succeeding Saleh at least in North Yemen is very real.  The State Department has issued a travel advisory for Yemen and even recommended that Americans still in the country make arrangements to leave.


The Kingdom of Bahrain is a small country, certainly no Egypt in either cultural or strategic weight.  With a population of just over 738,000, Bahrain has fewer residents than San Francisco.  With that population heavily concentrated on the northern side of its main island, Bahrain is in appearance nearly a city-state.  Last year the country had a per capita GDP of $38,800, giving it a higher overall level of affluence than most European countries.  But when pro-democracy demonstrations started here on February 14th they doubtless opened another round of nervous communications between our government officials and theirs.

I have literally heard the Kingdom of Bahrain described as “a huge, unsinkable aircraft carrier permanently-anchored in the Persian Gulf” by policy analysts.  Throw in the country’s 3.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (which isn’t a large supply, but quite available for export), and the United States Government has an inevitable concern with this country’s fate.  So far, our position has consistently been that Emir Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa should work out a deal with the demonstrators.  They have called for fresh, open and representative parliamentary elections and increased powers for parliament–effectively the conversion of Bahrain’s kingship to a true parliamentary monarchy.  (As Bahrain is technically a Gulf petrostate, the demonstrators have also asked for jobs.)

Considering the protest movements in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen were insistent on the swift departure of their respective presidents-for-life, the Bahraini demonstrators’ call for free and fair elections and the separation of powers sounds like a good deal by comparison; Emir Hamad would remain the king of a small, rich country enjoying good relations with its neighbors as well as the United States.  Though he would obviously have lost considerable power with the shift of authority to parliament, the nice thing about democracy is that if people become significantly-discontented, they simply elect new representatives.  (See also: Our last national election.)  In any case, power-sharing doesn’t seem like such a sacrifice when compared with ending several decades of absolute rule by fleeing your country in shame and fear.

The Emir first tried to head-off planned demonstrations by granting every family in the country $2,600; obviously this didn’t work out.  Whatever the Emir’s personal feelings about these demands, the police’s initial response to the demonstrations was a brute-force crackdown.  This disturbing amateur video posted to The Telegraph has should clarify why anger against the Kingdom has swelled over the past 2 weeks.  With this spectacle of repression–mortifying but still not sufficient to cow the opposition–popular mistrust of the Kingdom has grown.  It doesn’t help that, with many young people out of work, the police force punishing protesters with sometimes deadly violence are foreign non-citizens, relied upon because of their lack of connection to native Bahrainis.

The Emir quickly relented when it became clear there had been some deaths after the initial crackdown, telling the police to yield Manama’s large Pearl Square to the demonstrators.  2 days later the riot police killed 5 more protesters, however, making the Emir appear as either a bad-faith negotiator or simply off his depth.  By February 20th Libya’s more-recent protests almost completely overshadowed Bahrain’s in the media, as the regime’s brutality against demonstrators in Benghazi escalated the resistance there, culminating in the defection of army units there and the beginning of outright rebellion.  (Interestingly, that was the last day the police in Bahrain killed any demonstrators).  Since that time, up to 100,000 protesters have turned out to Pearl Square in Manama, in one case completing a human chain enclosing the capital.  Yesterday the demonstrators shut down a cabinet meeting for the 2nd time.

A big reason the momentum seems to be on the demonstrators’ side: Bahrain is about 70% Shi’ite Muslim, and the monarchy is Sunni Muslim.  The Shi’ite Bahrainis assert that they are not only systematically disenfranchised in parliament, but that they are systematically marginalized in the country’s lucrative economy.  Nicholas Kristof, while acknowledging the greater casual contact between the Shi’ite and Sunni Bahrainis, recently blogged that the character of Shi’ite exclusion from government and the presumption of entitlement he encounters amongst the countrys’ Sunni minority nonetheless reminds him of Apartheid South Africa.

I want to close this section with a quotation of a New York Times article from February 23rd that captures the naiveté or arrogance (if there is a difference) of some of the Khalifa monarchy’s Sunni supporters:

“…In a visceral demonstration of the distance between Sunni and Shiite, the (affluent Sunni) crowd cheered a police helicopter that swooped low, a symbol of the heavy-handed tactics that have been used to intimidate the Shiites.

“‘We love King Hamad and we hate chaos,’ said Hannan al-Abdallah, 22, as she joined the pro-government rally. ‘This is our country and we’re looking after it.’

“Ali al-Yaffi, 29, drove to the pro-government demonstration with friends in his shiny white sport utility vehicle. He was angry and distrustful. ‘The democracy they have been asking for is already here,’ he said. ‘But the Shias, they have their ayatollahs, and whatever they say, they will run and do it. If they tell them to burn a house, they will. I think they have a clear intention to disrupt this country.'”

These sound to me like the words of an ancien regime soon to fall.  Over the past week, opposition leaders have become frustrated by repeated evidence that the Emir has no intention of negotiating over a democratized and strengthened parliament, and the growing crowds in the street increasingly call for the deposition of the monarchy itself.  If Emir Hamad is forced to flee the country, he will have himself to blame for it.  Now it simply remains to be seen if the House of Saud throw their kill switch on the protests: The King Fahd Causeway connecting Bahrain to Saudi Arabia was built by the House of Saud so that its army could come to the aid of the Sunni Khalifa dynasty in the event of a Shi’ite uprising.  Perhaps such a heavy-handed foreign response would quell the democratic movement in Bahrain; or maybe it would be a tactical nightmare for an army little-experienced in urban fighting that would make Bahrain ungovernable for the Khalifas and exacerbate a mood of protest in Saudi Arabia’s largely-Shi’ite Eastern Province, a site of anti-government demonstrations on Friday.  Just sayin’.


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