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Iraq Roiled by Protests, 2 Killed in Sulaimaniya

Posted on 02/18/2011 by Juan

What I can’t understand is, if the American Right Wing were correct that George W. Bush was ‘right’ in trying to kick start democracy in the Middle East by invading and occupying it, then why would it be necessary for people to demonstrate and burn government buildings in… Iraq? And why have 5 people been shot down for demonstrating in two days in Iraq, as many as in the repressive monarchy of Bahrain?

Iraqis have been demonstrating against the al-Maliki government and lack of services for two weeks now. But on Thursday, a wave of rallies swept the country from north to south, leaving two dead in Sulaimaniya and government buildings torched elsewhere.

Al-Hayat reports in Arabic that in the city of Kut in Shiite south Iraq (the capital of Wasit province), crowds threatened the provincial headquarters. This action came a day after they had burned down the provincial council building and saw 3 protesters killed by security forces.

Euronews has video of Wednesday’s events in Kut:

The Iraqi parliament set a discussion of the protests for Saturday, while Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki warned that unnamed sinister forces were attempting to divert the legitimate demands of the people to unstated nefarious purposes.

In Kut on Thursday, dozens of demonstrators gathered in front of the mansion of the governor of Wasit Province, demanding the removal of the local governor. They demanded better government services, an end to administrative corruption (constant demands for bribes by provincial officials to do their jobs), accountability for the corrupt, and jobs. On Wednesday, police had shot dead three protesters and wounded more in Kut after they had set fire to a government building.

On Thursday, in the town of Nasar in Dhi Qar province, 490 km south of Baghdad, police chief Sabah al-Fatlawi said that a curfew had been implemented after government buildings were burned.

Also on Thursday, some 600 demonstrators in the southern port city of Basra in Iraq rallied in front of the provincial governor’s mansion, demanding his resignation over failure to provide basic services. They were pushed back by police.

Al-Hayat says that medical officials announced that two persons had been killed and more than 30 wounded in Sulaimaniya when a crowd of some 3000 came out to demand that the Kurdistan Regional Government address problems of unemployment and undertake to improve the situation in the region. The demonstration was sponsored by “The Network for Safeguarding Rights and Liberties,” which was protesting the authoritarian rule of the two Establishment Kurdish parties that make up the Kurdistan Alliance. Iraqi political parties are patronage machines that leave non-members on the outside and sometimes destitute. They demanded a change in government and an end to corruption.

On Monday, Shiite clerical leader Muqtada al-Sadr had called for peaceful demonstrations against what he called the continued American occupation of Iraq. Sadrists have probably been key to the demonstrations in the southern Iraqi cities.

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Bahrain Shiites Withdraw from Parliament, Call for King’s Overthrow

Posted on 02/18/2011 by Juan

Members of parliament from the Shiite Wifaq Party, which had 18 of 40 seats in the lower house of the Bahrain legislature, have resigned en masse from their positions. They were objecting thereby to the deaths so far of 5 protesters and the brutal crackdown on peaceful demonstrators early on Thursday morning by government security forces.

Streets were empty late Thursday in Manama, in the wake of the clearing of the downtown Pearl roundabout of demonstrators by security police, who took down their tents.

Euronews in Arabic reports that the Bahrain army stationed tanks in downtown Manama and then announced a ‘Communique No. 1′ in which they pledged (or threatened) to use decisive force to establish ‘order’ in the country (i.e. no more big demonstrations will be tolerated).

In the meantime, physicians and nurses demonstrated at having been prevented from treating in the field the hundreds of injured after the crackdown on Thursday morning.

Friday morning, a small group of 200 mourners came out for the funeral in a village of protesters killed by security police on Thursday. They chanted slogans calling for the overthrow of the Sunni monarchy.

Both the withdrawal of Wifaq from the government and the turn of chanting to anti-monarchy slogans are very bad signs for national cohesion. The Shiites of Bahrain, about 70% of the citizen population, have now largely withdrawn from the body politic, remaining only as disenfranchised and sullen subjects of a monarchy many can no longer abide. Many Shiites are saying that the government, by attacking peaceful protesters, has lost all credibility.

Aljazeera English has video on Thursday’s violent crackdown:

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The Great Arab Revolt: Cole in the Nation

Posted on 02/17/2011 by Juan

My essay is out in The Nation, entitled “The Great Arab Revolt”.

‘These governments took steps in recent decades toward neoliberal policies of privatization and a smaller public sector under pressure from Washington and allied institutions—and the process was often corrupt. The ruling families used their prior knowledge of important economic policy initiatives to engage in a kind of insider trading, advantaging their relatives and buddies.

The wife of Tunisian dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, the notorious former hairdresser Leila Ben Ali, placed her relatives in key business positions enabled by insider government knowledge and licenses that allowed them to dominate the country. The US Embassy in Tunis estimated in 2006 that half the major entrepreneurs in the country were related by blood or marriage to the president. In Egypt, Ahmed Ezz, for example, benefited from his high position in the ruling National Democratic Party and his friendship with Hosni Mubarak’s son Gamal. Ezz has been formally charged with usurping control of a government-owned steel concern and of rerouting its products to his own, privately owned Ezz Steel company. In the past decade, Ezz went from controlling 35 percent of the Egyptian steel market to over 60 percent, raising a chorus of accusations of monopoly practices. Since the Mubaraks rigged the elections so that the NDP always won, and the party officials favored by the president prospered, Egypt was ruled by a closed elite.’

Read the whole thing.

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Egypt Situation Still Explosive

Posted on 02/17/2011 by Juan

The military government of Gen. Mohammad Hussein Tantawi, the minister of defense, has taken important steps toward mollifying the Jan. 25 protest movement, but it is not clear that these measures can succeed in forestalling further clashes and severe conflicts in Egypt.

The government has appointed respected jurist Tareq al-Bishri to head a committee charged with amending the 1973 constitution, which had been subject to large numbers of changes that benefited the ruling National Democratic Party. The committee working on these amendments, aimed at creating a framework for free and fair parliamentary elections in late summer or early fall, includes a Coptic Christian and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a major element in the opposition. Bishri is known as a pious Muslim, not an extremist.

Human rights organizations complained that the committee had no women on it, was not representative, and had a distinctly conservative cast.

The government says that the amended constitution will be produced within 10 days and then put to a national referendum within two months. The swiftness with which it is working, and the resort to a mechanism for popular affirmation of the constitution, both received some acclaim even from sections of the protest movement, though other branches of it are unconvinced.

The military has also just pledged to meet another major demand of the protest movement, to abolish the emergency laws that have suspended civil liberties for nearly 30 years before Egypt goes to the polls in the fall.

France24 has video

Among the big changes being contemplated is moving Egypt to a form of government more like that of Britain, i.e. a parliamentary system with power vested in a prime minister who comes out of the elected legislature. As it is, Egypt more resembles France and the US, in having an independently elected, powerful presidency whose prerogatives curb those of parliament (or Congress). The presidential system in the Middle East has often deteriorated into dictatorship and presidents-for-life. Democratization theorists in the US agree that this move would be a good idea.

The constitutional changes are not putting food on anyone’s table, and workers are continuing to strike, in defiance of military strictures. On Wednesday some 10,000 textile workers at al-Mahallah al-Kubra went on strike. Bank workers, transportation workers, even police and ambulance drivers, have engaged in work stoppages and have demanded better wages and working conditions.

Euronews has video on the strikes:

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Bahrain Army Cracks down Hard on Protesters, kills 4, wounds 95

Posted on 02/17/2011 by Juan

Bahrain’s king, Hamad Al Khalifa, ordered troops and tanks into Pearl Square in downtown Manama in the early hours of Thursday morning. They fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and used batons to clear the hundreds of demonstrators who had decided to stay the night in the square, killing four protesters and injuring 95. About 50 tanks were reportedly on their way to the site on Thursday morning.

On Wednesday, thousands of protesters had come out to mourn the second of two dissidents who had been killed by police repressing earlier demonstrations.

Aljazeera English covers what happened during the day on Wednesday:

Then the military decided to move in to crush the dissident forces.

Then Aljazeera English on Wednesday night delivered the bad news:

The differences between Bahrain on the one hand and Tunisia & Egypt on the other are legion. But the strong ethnic and sectarian divide between the minority Sunni king and the majority Shiite population is key here. The military that crushed the mostly Shiite protesters on Thursday morning is Sunni. The secret police are Sunni (and sometimes even expatriate Pakistanis & etc.) If the Shiites got what they wanted, i.e. more democracy and a weaker monarchy, then the interests of the Sunni ruling class would be profoundly endangered.

In Bahrain’s case, the interest of the Saudi state in backing the Sunni monarchy, and fear that the Shiites would favor Iran, complicates the story regionally. Saudi Arabia is very wealthy and very nearby (a causeway connects the main island of Bahrain to the Saudi mainland, across which Saudi expatriates come in, and act as a support for the king against his own Shiite population).

Tunisia and Egypt are much more unified populations, mostly Sunni and Arab. The military in neither place was afraid that if the strong man was overthrown, some alien ethno-sectarian group might take over that would imperil the prerogatives of the existing Establishment. Nor were there big regional geopolitical divides, though of course the far rightwing Likud government of Israel preferred that Mubarak remain as strong man. It was not powerful in Egypt, however, while Saudi Arabia is powerful in Bahrain.

Both Tunisia and Egypt were class-based movements, protests of the blue and white collar workers. While economic grievances are important in Bahrain, they are being reworked as sectarian grievances, since most of the rural and small-town poor are Shiites.

There is still no guarantee that the Sunni government will succeed in repressing the movement of the Shiite majority for more democracy in Bahrain, but determination to use force against protesters does raise the cost of activism significantly, and sometimes can tamp it down.

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Bahrain: US Naval Base or Iranian Asset?

Posted on 02/16/2011 by Juan

What is at stake for Americans in the Bahrain unrest?

1. Bahrain is a major center for the refining of crude petroleum, refining some 270,000 barrels a day. This amount is not large, but given tight petroleum supplies and a price of over $100 a barrel for Brent Crude, an outage there would certainly put up world prices.

2. Bahrain hosts a naval base for the US Fifth Fleet, important to the US security architecture for the Persian Gulf (the Arabs say Arabian Gulf). Nearly 2/3s of the world’s proven petroleum reserves and 45% of the world’s natural gas reserves are in the Gulf region.

3. Bahrain is an important finance center.

The Shiite majority is attempting to assert itself there. A Shiite-dominated government in Bahrain might well demand a closure of the US naval base. It would not be an Iranian puppet, insofar as Arab Shiites are jealous of their independence and most Bahraini Shiites don’t follow ayatollahs; but it would certainly have warm relations with Tehran. A Shiite victory there would politically embolden other Gulf Arab Shiites, in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (Shiites are a minority in all three). Insofar as Iran enjoys soft power with the region’s Shiites, the net result would certainly favor Iran and at least somewhat disadvantage the United States, which already shot itself in the foot by helping install a Shiite government in Baghdad that has excellent relations with Iran. For the Bahrain government to become more democratic and more Shiite-influenced would annoy the Wahhabi Saudi state, which now sees the Sunni Bahraini king as a strategic asset.

Persian Gulf


Thousands of Shiite demonstrators came out yet again in Bahrain on Tuesday. They are demanding that prime minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa step down. An uncle of the king, Sheikh Khalifa has been appointed PM for four decades. The Shiite protesters want an elected prime minister who would reflect their demographic dominance.

The killings of two demonstrators, one on Monday and another on Tuesday, have helped to galvanize the crowds. In an unusual concession, the king, Hamad Al Khalifa, apologized Tuesday for the deaths and promised that the shooters would be brought to justice.

The demonstrators thronged into the downtown Pearl Roundabout, and some are insisting on spending the night there. The main Shiite political party, with 18 seats in the lower house of 40 seats, is Wifaq. It suspended its participation in parliament on Tuesday in protest against the killings of the two demonstrators.

Bahrain has a little over 1.2 million people, of whom 54 percent are expatriate guest workers, nearly half of them from India. I can remember, on the occasions I was in Manama, the way signs in Malayalam festooned the market and the money-changer stalls. The other 568,000 are Bahrainis. Of these, social scientists think about two-thirds, or about 374,000, are Shiites. In turn, about 100,000 of these are Ajamis, i.e. Shiites of Iranian heritage who are now Arabs. The rest are Baharna or indigenous Bahraini Shiites, who mainly adhere to the conservative Akhbari school that does not believe in following ayatollahs. Many of them live in rural villages outside the capital.

The other 187,000 or so are Sunni Bahrainis, the community to which King Hamad Al Khalifah belongs. He has reigned as king since 2002 (having come to power as emir in 1999).



In the Gulf, typically guest workers cannot vote and don’t have permanent residency or a path to citizenship, though it is rumored that the Sunni monarch, King Hamad Al Khalifa, has bestowed Bahraini citizenship on some expatriate Sunnis in a so far vain attempt offset the indigenous Shiite majority.

The Bahrain constitution lets the Sunni king appoint the 40 members of the upper house of parliament. The lower house also has 40 members, and in the 2010 election only 18 of them were captured by the Shiite religious party, Wifaq, led by cleric Ali Salman. The other 22 went to Sunnis of various stripes.

Ali Salman

Ali Salman

So, in a country where citizens are probably two-thirds Shiite, Shiites have little representation in the senate and are a minority even in the elected lower house. Not only can the Sunni-dominated upper house veto measures passed by the lower house, but the king himself can veto legislation at will and can prorogue parliament whenever he likes.

Many Shiites in rural areas are poor, despite Bahrain’s riches, derived from its small petroleum industry, its vital finance sector, and strategic rent from the US for the US naval base for the Fifth Fleet. Wifaq not only seeks more equitable representation for the Shiite majority but also a better economic deal for the poor.

Aljazeera English has video on Bahrain:


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Posted in Iran, Saudi Arabia, US Politics, Uncategorized | 23 Comments

Pressman: “Coup with a mass(ive) twist”

Posted on 02/16/2011 by Juan

Jeremy Pressman writes in a guest column for Informed Comment:

Since Mubarak’s departure, I have followed several discussions among academics and analysts about what just happened. Some contend it was a military coup . Many others call it a popular revolution.

I am not surprised about this disagreement because while the general pressure that was brought to bear on Mubarak came from millions of Egyptians taking to the streets, the final push came from Egypt’s generals who saw the writing on the wall, even when Mubarak himself stubbornly clung to power. (Maybe it was a coupvolution?)

But the coup vs. revolution divide is not just an academic debate. The combination of these two elements will likely greatly influence the direction Egypt takes over the next 6-12 months. As Juan Cole noted on February 13, “For the moment, Egypt is a strange kind of military dictatorship, with various safety valves for popular input and a set of promises for the future. But then, it has been that for some time– it is just that the promises may now be more credible and a transition to something else may be possible.”

Will the leaders of the armed forces still think about how to protect their military, political, and economic power? Absolutely, and I would not expect them to do otherwise.

At the same time, we know the generals witnessed the same mass movement that captivated not only the Egyptian populace but also the rest of the world. The cost of blocking genuine political reform would clearly be higher than in the aftermath of a conventional coup where the initial pressure for change came from the military itself. In this case, the January 25 movement was an impressive mass movement with extensive preparation, transnational learning, and broad public involvement.

Moreover, I fear the understandable focus on the fact that it took only 18 days to topple Mubarak – amazing, yes – obscures the years of planning, protesting, organizing, and learning by many Egyptian groups. By all appearances, this was a hard-fought and well-earned victory, not a flash in the pan.

What I am left wondering is whether the military can relinquish political power, perhaps even to the point of formal civilian rule over the armed forces, and still hold onto its economic empire. With Gamal Mubarak “badly in need of a good career counselor,” the military’s economic arms might even have a freer hand.

(A succinct take is here: “And it seems that the military, now as “national capitalists,” have seen themselves as the blood rivals of the neoliberal “crony capitalists” associated with Hosni Mubarak’s son Gamal who have privatized anything they can get their hands on and sold the country’s assets off to China, the US, and Persian Gulf capital.”) Because while the desire for political freedom played a central role in the uprising, economic want did as well. What happens if Egyptians see progress on one but not the other?

Jeremy Pressman
Alan R. Bennett Honors Professor
Associate Professor
Department of Political Science
University of Connecticut

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Fear Not the Muslim Brotherhood Boogeyman: Cole in Truthdig

Posted on 02/15/2011 by Juan

My column in Truthdig is out, entitled Fear Not the Muslim Brotherhood Boogeyman


‘ The hysteria in American media about Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is not only ignorant and demagogic, it is hypocritical. The United States has actively promoted Muslim Brotherhood branches in other countries when it suited its purposes, including in Afghanistan and Iraq. Moreover, the Turkish and Indonesian cases of democratic transition in the Muslim world should have taught us something about how Muslim fundamentalist parties are themselves transformed in a democratic setting.’

Read the whole thing.

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Posted in Egypt | 7 Comments