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Assad's moment of truth

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal last January, President Assad of Syria talked about reform. Not reform under pressure but reform with "conviction", as he put it.

"If you did not see the need for reform before what happened in Egypt and in Tunisia," he said, "it is too late to do any reform. This is first. Second, if you do it just because of what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, then it is going to be a reaction, not an action; and as long as what you are doing is a reaction you are going to fail."

Two months later, President Assad finds himself in exactly the situation he cautioned against: being forced to institute reforms as a reaction to events. And, as he said himself, the likelihood is that this will fail.

He now faces the difficult task of persuading Syrians that, contrary to appearances, the reforms on offer will be far-reaching and genuine and not just a ploy to quieten discontent.

For starters, his entire cabinet resigned on Tuesday and there are hints that the 50-year-old state of emergency will be lifted almost immediately. On Wednesday morning, Bashar himself is due to give a speech in the Syrian parliament.

One early indication of how genuine this is will be the announcement of the new cabinet: how many old faces return and how many new ones – preferably clean and untainted by the past – are introduced into key positions. The late presidents of Tunisia and Egypt, not to mention the beleaguered current president of Yemen have tried similar tactics to little avail, but we shall see how far Bashar is prepared to go.

To be convincing on the reform front, though, he will have to offer something truly dramatic. At this late stage, vague promises of elections and a multi-party system will not suffice. They take too long to implement and can easily lead to nothing more than a Mubarak-style democracy with rigged elections and a single dominant party.

In Syria, as in other Arab countries, what really annoys the public is corruption and privilege. If he is prepared to tackle that, there is some hope for his survival. Whether he can actually do it is another matter, since it would mean – among other things – dispensing with some key members of his own family: cousin Rami Makhlouf, brother Maher and brother-in-law Assef Shawkat as a bare minimum. Does he have the nerve, or the power, to remove them? Probably not.

The other thing that Syrians clearly want is to be allowed to speak, meet and organise freely, without fear of arrest and imprisonment. There are some signs that this may be on offer, at least in theory, but the problem is not so much how to open the door as how to keep it open. We have seen modest steps in that direction in the past but the regime has always tended to rein back again whenever it became nervous.

It's probably true to say that Bashar is more reform-minded than many of his regime associates and that he has pushed things forward in a few areas since coming to power 11 years ago. But considering the length of time it has taken, it's not very much in comparison with what is needed and there is still a good deal of resistance to change within the regime. A wholesale purge will be required if he is going to speed things up.

Taking everything into account, I doubt that he will be able to make enough changes, quickly enough. Even if he manages to quell the current protests, the most that he can probably hope for is to buy a few more years before the problem returns.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 29 March 2011. Comment.

Organised chaos in Yemen

More than 100 people are reported dead following an explosion at a munitions factory in southern Yemen on Monday . The Financial Times says:

According to a resident of the area, the explosion took place when local people swarmed into the building to steal ammunition, after government security forces withdrew from the town of Jaar in the province of Abyan.

Armed actors, said by some to be Islamist militants, and others to be tribesmen, reportedly clashed with the army in Jaar on Sunday.

Following the breakdown of talks about his departure at the weekend, President Salih has hardened his line, saying there will be no more concessions and apparently reverting to the position that he will stay in office until 2013 when his presidential term officially ends.

The withdrawal of security forces which led to the tragedy in Jaar seems to be part of a ploy by Salih to encourage chaos in certain areas of the country – even attacks by militants connected to al-Qaeda – as a way of demonstrating (especially to the Americans) that Yemen needs him. However, the ploy is so transparent that even the US, which has so far been reluctant to see Salih go, may find it a bit too much to swallow.

According to Arab News, the regime has now "lost its grip" (or given it up) in at least four provinces: Saada and al-Jawf in the north, and Abyan and Shabwa in the south:

In the northern province of Saada, Houthi rebels seized control of the province following clashes with local tribes, a resident told Arab News. The rebels now run government facilities and control checkpoints. Residents approved Faris Manna, a notorious arms dealer, as replacement for the governor who has fled to the capital. Police deserted their posts and relocated themselves to army camps.

In Shabwa, armed men from Southern Movement attacked and looted Central Security camps. They are now in full control of four major districts including Nessab, Al-Saaed, Haban and Maevaa, a local journalist told Arab News by telephone. The government’s writ runs only in Ataq, the capital of the province, and another district, Bayhan.

The Norwegian daily, Aftenposten, is suggesting that President Salih tried to trick Saudi forces into killing his kinsman, General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, who recently sided with the opposition. Ali Muhsin has long been regarded as a potential challenger for power.

The incident happened late in 2009 or early in 2010 when the Saudi air force was bombing the Houthi rebels in northern Yemen. 

A cable from the US embassy in Riyadh, published by Wikileaks, describes a conversation with Prince Khaled, the assistant defence minister of Saudi Arabia. The cable says:

Prince Khaled also reported that the Saudis had problems with some of the targeting recommendations received from the Yemeni side. 

For instance, there was one occasion when Saudi pilots aborted a strike, when they sensed something was wrong about the information they received from the Yemenis. It turned out that the site recommended to be hit was the headquarters of General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, the Yemeni northern area military commander, who is regarded as a political opponent to President Saleh. 

This incident prompted the Saudis to be more cautious about targeting recommendations from the Yemeni government. 

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 29 March 2011. Comment.

Gaddafi's exit strategy?

Colonel Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam, is touting a "transition" plan for Libya, according to the Saudi-owned newspaper, Asharq Alawsat.

Saif's plan "would see him take over control of Libya from his father during a transitional period during which Libya would transform from a revolutionary state to a democratic state that enjoys public and economic freedoms" the paper says.

The transitional period would last between two and three years, in return for a comprehensive ceasefire and negotiations with the opposition. Saif is also said to be pushing for assurances that "Colonel Gaddafi and his family will be granted immunity from prosecution, and will not be legally punished in any manner".

The report adds that Saif "has been in contact with officials in the US, British, and Italian governments, in an attempt to submit the above-mentioned plan".

Libyan opposition figures quoted by the paper dismissed Saif's plan as "just a new political manoeuvre" and "an attempt to gain time and fool public opinion". 

But, assuming that this plan has the Leader's approval and is not an independent initiative by Saif himself, it does suggest the regime realises it cannot reassert control and will have to make concessions – if it is to survive at all.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 March 2011. Comment.

Revolutionary updates, 27 March


More protests, more repression. The NOW Lebanon website, which is monitoring events from Beirut, has the latest blow-by-blow updates.

Writing for the Syrian Revolution Digest, Ammar Abdulhamid notes that momentum shifted northwards on Saturday to the coastal city of Lattakia:

The city had joined the revolutionary fray on Friday, and clashes between protesters on the one hand, and security forces supported by gangs of smugglers, known as the Shabbiha, many of whom are of Alawite descent and closely affiliated with different members of the Assad-Makhlouf clan and who for long treated Lattakia as their favorite in-country playground, continued through the night. 

After the Shabbiha opened fire on protesters from their cars and from rooftops, killing around 17 and wounding dozens, protesters withdrew to the narrow alleyways, where people [threw] rocks and garbage cans on passing security cars.

By late Saturday evening, local notables formed councils that worked on reconciliation with the security forces and some of the Shabbiha. The situation seems to be under official control now. But the city remains under siege, with no one allowed in or out.

Abdulhamid also highlights a video of the president's brother, Maher, after storming Seydnana Prison in 2008 and suggests that referring Maher to the International Criminal Court at this stage "might put enough pressures on the Syrian regime to refrain from further acts of bloodshed".

There are persistent rumours of disputes between President Bashar al-Assad and his inner circle (including his family), with Bashar supposedly favouring a more conciliatory approach towards the protesters. This may be true – or it could just be disinformation intended to keep the president's image relatively unsullied.

On The Arabist blog, Issandr El Amrani discusses some recent articles about the situation in Syria. One is the argument that the Assad regime could save itself by embracing genuine reform now, rather than ignoring the problem. 

Personally, I don't think the regime is capable of doing so. At this late stage the reforms would have to be very radical and immediate in order to be convincing – not just vague promises to look at areas where more freedom might be allowed – and in any case there is probably too much resistance to that from hardliners inside the regime.

The Arabist also looks at a couple of articles from the US which, predictably and rather irritatingly, continue to view the uprising through the prism of Israeli interests rather than what would be good for the people of Syria.


There seems to be general agreement in Yemen, even by the president himself, that Ali Abdullah Salih is on the way out. The question is when. 

Talks on Saturday to negotiate his departure proved inconclusive but there was a brief flurry of excitement later when Salih said he could leave power "in a few hours" if allowed to do so with "respect and prestige". At the same time, though, he appears determined to stick around long enough to achieve a "peaceful" handover (by which he probably means influencing the decision as to who will take over – which is not necessarily a good thing).

Today, he is said to be meeting the ruling party for "crisis talks".

Again, some irritating attitudes continue to appear in the media coverage. Reuters, for example, persists in saying that "Saleh has been a key ally of the United States and Saudi Arabia in keeping at bay a Yemen-based resurgent wing of al-Qaeda." 

That is questionable, at best. Salih has been an ally of sorts, but a difficult and sometimes mendacious one – as the Wikileaks documents (here and here) showed – and he will be no great loss.


The forces that brought about the overthrow of President Mubarak in Egypt are likely to be the subject of much study in the coming years. A collection of primary-source material – The Tahrir Documents – translated into English has just been published on the internet and should be a useful starting point for anyone who wants to delve into this more deeply.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 March 2011. Comment.

Assad: waving goodbye?

The video above shows protesters in Deraa attacking a statue of the former Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad. The scene is highly evocative of Firdous Square in Baghdad, where Saddam Hussein's statue was toppled (with the aid of US troops) in 2003. Indeed, the wobbling statue of Assad is giving a very similar kind of wave.

Below is another video from Deraa, this time showing the current president's image being attacked.

The "fear barrier" is an important consideration for both protesters and Arab regimes. The regimes' basic calculation is that at any given time only a relatively small number of people are likely to cause trouble – because the rest will be too afraid. So long as the fear barrier remains, they can be reasonably confident of dealing with the situation.

What we saw in Tunisia and Egypt was that once the fear barrier was broken large-scale protests erupted in numerous places and the security forces were no longer able to cope. One sign of the fear barrier breaking is when people start openly destroying images of the president – and this is now happening in Syria.

Syria, at the moment, appears to be on the cusp. It's probably fair to say that the fear barrier has been well and truly broken in Deraa, and it is cracking but not quite broken in other parts of the country.

Considering that it is little more than a week since the first serious stirrings against the regime occurred in Syria, events seem to be moving quite fast. Coverage in the mainstream media is still fairly sparse – partly because attention in focused mainly on Libya, but also because of reporting restrictions inside Syria. Readers may find the following sources of information useful:

NOW Lebanon
Frequent live updates. Those from Friday are here.

Syrian Revolution Digest 
Ammar Abdulhamid's new website provides brief commentary, plus a large number of videos.

Syria Comment
A blog by Joshua Landis of Oklahomah University, who is a leading expert on Syria.

Syrian Revolution 
A Facebook page

Syrians for Peaceful Reform
Another Facebook page

In an article for Time magazine, Joshua Landis asks: "Is there a soft landing for Syria?" His answer is: probably not.

The International Crisis Group has also produced a risk assessment. It says:

"Syria is at what is rapidly becoming a defining moment for its leadership. There are only two options. One involves an immediate and inevitably risky political initiative that might convince the Syrian people that the regime is willing to undertake dramatic change. The other entails escalating repression, which has every chance of leading to a bloody and ignominious end."

The ICG sees three inter-related challenges for the Assad regime:

1. "A diffuse but deep sense of fatigue within society at large, combined with a new unwillingness to tolerate what Syrians had long grown accustomed to – namely the arrogance of power in its many forms ..."

2. A long list of specific grievances. "These typically involve a combination: rising cost of living, failing state services, unemployment, corruption and a legacy of abuse by security services."

3. "The third challenge relates to the regime’s many genuine enemies, all of whom undoubtedly will seek to seize this rare opportunity to precipitate its demise."

It goes almost without saying that whatever happens in Syria will have a knock-on effect in Lebanon – especially for Syria's allies there (including Hizbullah). An article from AFP looks at some of the implications.

The Beirut Observer website is reporting (in Arabic) that Vice-President Farouq al-Sharaa has been shot following a dispute with Maher al-Assad and the president's brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat. I wouldn't be surprised if they had quarrelled, but I have no idea how much credence – if any – to give to the report of the shooting.

Finally, a quick word on Libya which I am not attempting to cover in detail here because it is getting so much attention elsewhere.

Suggestions that the situation will turn into a stalemate or result in a Korean-style division of the country don't strike me as very persuasive. I wouldn't rule that possibility out, but it seems to me there is also a reasonable chance of the Gaddafi regime imploding fairly quickly – in a matter of weeks rather than months or years.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 26 March 2011. Comment.

UDPATE, 29 March: Sharaa is alive and apparently well. He appeared on the Lebanese Hizbollah TV channel on Monday.

Revolutionary updates: 24 March


Security forces opened fire on protesters outside the Omari mosque in Deraa early on Wednesday, killing at least 15 people, according to al-Jazeera. However, the Syrian Revolution Digest, citing activists on the ground, says the number of dead could be 150 or more. Many of those injured were reportedly taken away by army vehicles to an unknown destination (not to local hospitals).

Journalists are not being allowed into Deraa, so these accounts are impossible to confirm independently.

The Syrian Revolution Digest, which has a number of videos of the scenes, is a new blog by exiled dissident Ammar Abdulhamid. He writes:

"Meanwhile, Syrian officials are mounting an extensive public relations campaign, as their spokesmen flood TV stations speaking as if they were members of the opposition, calling for reforms, admitting mistakes, saying the 'president' intends to call for a major conference on political reform, all while raising all sorts of doubts about foreign agendas, infiltrators and suspicious happenings in Deraa. 

"This is an old tactic and, despite the greater exposure by Syrians to different versions of the 'truth' thanks to satellite channels, it can still be effective, among those too scared to act ad are in search of excuses and justifications for their behaviour. 

"How effective this tactic [is] will be demonstrated on Friday. Activists are calling for mass demonstrations to take place following the noon prayers, the size of the crowds willing to respond will divulge much about the pace, course and nature of events in the days and weeks to come."

Time magazine has an article about the origins of the uprising. It says:

"The words have been repeated from Tunisia to Egypt, from Yemen to Bahrain. 'The people want the regime to fall' – the mantra of revolution. And so, last week, after 15 kids wrote those words on a wall in the agricultural town of Dara'a in southern Syria, the local governor decided to come down hard. The young people – all under 17 – were thrown in jail. The punishment stunned the town, and suddenly, Syria – so confidently authoritarian – got its first strong taste of rebellion in the Arab Spring."

For readers of Arabic, there is a new "Syrian Revolution" Facebook page which has been "liked" by more than 73,000 people.


President Salih's new emergency law was rushed through the Yemeni parliament on Wednesday. There are disputes as to whether the session – which had been boycotted by the opposition – was quorate. Parliamentary officials said 164 members were present and all but four of them voted in favour of the measure. The opposition Islah party said only 133 attended. For a vote to be valid, at least 151 of the 301 members must be present.

The effect of the emergency law is to suspend the constitution, allow media censorship, ban street demonstrations and give far-reaching powers to the security forces.

Human Rights Watch has issued a statement pointing out that the emergency law does not override the government's obligation to respect fundamental human rights under international law. 

"Emergency laws are no excuse to use unlawful force to quash peaceful protests," a spokesman for HRW said. "The world is watching to see whether President Saleh will respect the basic rights of his citizens."

Meanwhile, the Financial Times reports that the authorities have closed down al-Jazeera's bureau in Sana'a – a day after its offices were raided by armed men. On Saturday, two al-Jazeera correspondents were deported after the information ministry accused them of "professional infractions during their coverage of the current events in Yemen".

Mark Katz, a professor of government and politics at George Mason University, has written for the CNN blog under the headline "Yemeni President Saleh should go now". His article makes some additional points to those I made here on Wednesday.

He argues (as I did too) that Salih's early departure would not necessarily bring a cataclysm to Yemen:

"I, for one, believe that the Yemeni situation is more likely to improve if Saleh leaves office now. While Yemen has been afflicted with many conflicts, it also has a strong tradition of successful internal conflict resolution – as occurred at the end of the 1962-70 North Yemeni civil war and the elaborate agreements on unification between north and south that resulted in unification in 1990 (and which Saleh subsequently reneged on).

"Among other things, Yemenis know better than anyone else just how well armed their fellow citizens are, and thus know how futile engaging in a civil war would be.

"Without Saleh and his constant machinations to keep them isolated them from America and the west, Yemenis would have much greater prospects for exercising their conflict resolution skills ...

"America and the west need to realise that the conflicts in Yemen are mainly over local concerns. Encouraging and enabling Yemenis to resolve them on their own (as they have in the past) is the best way America can make sure that the role of Iran and al-Qaeda remain limited in Yemen."


Saudi Arabia has unexpectedly announced that it will hold local government elections on April 23. This move, apparently brought about by demands for reform, will be only the second opportunity for Saudi men to vote during the last 45 years or so.

In 2005, half the seats on local councils were offered for election (with the remaining 50% appointed by the king). Women were not allowed to vote but there were assurances that they would be allowed to do so when technical difficulties resulting from gender segregation had been overcome. That was hailed at the time as a small step towards democracy. 

The councils were due for re-election in 2009, but nothing happened then and the reason given was that the elections had been 
postponed for "re-evaluation".

Once again, women will not be allowed to vote in the coming elections and John Burgess on the Crossroads Arabia blog suggests that a few more months' delay would not be a problem if it allowed the voting rules to be changed in the meantime in order to include women.

In the 2005 elections Islamist candidates preformed unexpectedly well, causing alarm among liberal reformers. Possibly the king is hoping for a repeat of that, which would dampen calls for a further extension of the kingdom's minimalist democracy.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 24 March 2011. Comment.

Yemen: Why Salih must go now

As turmoil continued in Yemen yesterday, President Salih 
offered to step down by January next year after organising new parliamentary elections. The opposition has rejected this – and rightly so. He should go immediately.

Tying his departure to elections would provide Salih with an excuse to cling on beyond January, on the grounds that elections could not be organised in time. The elections that were due next month have already been delayed by two years and on March 10 they were postponed again – allegedly because the electoral registers were not ready.

There is no good reason why elections have to be conducted with Salih manipulating them from the driving seat, and there are plenty of reasons why he should not be around when they occur. A presidential aide quoted by al-Jazeera yesterday said: "Ali Abdullah Salih will not leave without knowing who he is handing over to." In other words, he wants to stay in power in order to shape the elections' outcome.

Salih has also invoked the scaremongering argument used earlier by Mubarak in Egypt: "Après moi le déluge". He warned yesterday of a bloody civil war if he is forced out of office. There may well be trouble after he goes, but there will be serious trouble too if he stays. It is already happening and the longer he remains in power the worse it is likely to get. 

The United States, meanwhile, is still reluctant to abandon Salih. Without declaring support for him, it continues to fret about "instability" and yesterday defence secretary Robert Gates refused to be drawn on whether the Yemeni president should step down immediately. "I don't think it's my place to talk about internal affairs in Yemen," he said.

Short-sightedly, US policy towards Yemen continues to be shaped by concerns about terrorism, and very little else. The US media perpetuates this by continuing to portray Salih as some kind of bulwark against al-Qaeda. The latest example came yesterday from the Washington Post:

"According to news wire reports and Internet postings by Yemenis, Saleh’s army repelled an attack by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula on a military position east of Lawdar, a city in the southern part of the country, killing 12 militants and injuring five."

The fact of the matter is that Salih has a vested interest in claiming victories against al-Qaeda but not in actually defeating it. The continuation of militant activity in Yemen is what he relies on for international support.

Following his declaration of a state of emergency at the weekend, Salih is now seeking to legitimise it through an act of parliament. The text of the draft emergency law has been published (in Arabic) on al-Masdar's website. It provisions are truly draconian, restricting all forms of media, travel and public meetings, even regulating the opening of shops and allowing for the "temporary takeover" of property.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 March 2011. Comment.

Yemen: military manoeuvres

In Yemen, Monday began with what appeared to be an attempted coup by the president's kinsman, General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar who announced that he was siding with the protesters – and tanks duly appeared on the streets of Sana'a.

Since Ali Muhsin is the person Yemenis (including President Salih) probably fear the most and is a prime example of all that is wrong with the regime, his decision to support the popular struggle was a mixed blessing. Meanwhile, troops loyal to Ahmed Salih, the president's son, took up positions around the palace – apparently to protect Salih from Ali Muhsin's forces.

During the course of the day, large numbers of military officers, officials and Yemeni diplomats based abroad – having seen which way the wind was blowing – jumped ship and withdrew their support from Salih.

However, a Yemeni diplomat in Washington later told al-Jazeera this did not necessarily mean they were joining the opposition:

"What's going on in Yemen is not about opposition parties. It's about those young people in the university, militants, and a lot of people so the opposition is not the one who's leading this. It's a national movement, it's everybody protesting and we've joined that.

"I'm still in my office, I'm doing my job because we're serving the Yemeni people. Yes, we are representing the government but at the same time we're representing Yemeni people. The government of Yemen changes from time to time but the diplomatic corps are still there." 

Despite all that, defence minister Mohammed Nasser Ahmed (who had been formally dismissed by Salih along with the rest of the government at the weekend) claimed that the military remained loyal to the president. 

The foreign minister also made a hasty trip to Saudi Arabia, carrying a letter from Salih.

It is unclear at present whether Salih is still seeking to cling on or trying to negotiate a dignified departure with an orderly transition. Either way, the Saudis seem to be heavily involved behind the scenes and perhaps acting partly on behalf of the United States.

This may be the reason why Salih is not gone already: there are hints that the Saudis may want him to stay, while the US – if not actually wanting to keep him in power – is worried about the future without him. There are still those in the US who regard Salih as an important ally against al-Qaeda, not fully appreciating that he is a very tricky customer, as the WikiLeaks documents demonstrated (here and here).

This morning, al-Jazeera is reporting that its offices in Sana'a were attacked by gunmen who fled with some equipment.

There are also posts on Twitter saying that a deal has been reached overnight between Ali Muhsin and the president. At the time of writing there is no indication as to the nature of this deal.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 March 2011. Comment.

Revolutionary updates: 21 March

Aside from Libya, which is getting wall-to-wall media coverage, here are some other noteworthy events from the weekend:


In the southern city of Deraa, protesters clashed with security forces on Sunday, for the third day running. Numerous buildings associated with the regime were set on fire, including Syriatel (the mobile phone company owned by President Assad's corrupt cousin, Rami Makhlouf). The Omari mosque was turned into a makeshift hospital (video). Al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya have reports on the situation in Deraa.

Smaller protests have been reported in other parts of the country, mostly resulting in dispersal and arrests.

As I suggested on Friday, it does seem that an uprising in Syria is now under way, though still in its early stages. The picture is likely to become clearer today. March 21 marks the start of the Kurdish new year (Nawroz) – which has often been a time for agitation by Syria's Kurdish minority. In the light of disturbances elsewhere in the country, they may see this as an opportune moment for some action.


Saturday's referendum on constitutional amendments produced a 77% "yes" vote: 14 million in favour, four million against. Many activists (though not all) had been opposing the amendments, seeking an total overhaul of the constitution instead.

Issandr el Amrani discusses the referendum on the Arabist blog, while Sandmonkey considers the struggle ahead.


Following the massacre of demonstrators on Friday and the declaration of a 30-day state of emergency, President Salih dismissed his cabinet (though he has asked members to stay on until a new government can be appointed). This brings to mind the old quip about rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic.

The Yemen Observer suggests this is a step towards forming a national unity government – allegedly in reponse to Saudi-led mediation (!). If so, the question now is how many opposition figures will be willing to help Salih by becoming ministers in his hour of need.

Dismissing the government could also be a move to forestall any further resignations. In a separate article, the Yemen Observer says "Politicians and academics are continuing to turn their backs on the ruling General People's Congress." The human rights minister, Huda al-Ban, resigned at the weekend – the third minister to do so since protests escalated last month. The Yemen Times has more on the resignations.


Peaceful demonstrations, attended by thousands, took place on Sunday in Casablanca and several other Moroccan cities. Larbi.org (in French) has a series of photos and videos. News reports: al-Arabiya, AFP and Reuters. AFP says:

"The call for demonstrations was backed by the youth wing of the Justice and Charity movement, regarded as Morocco's main Islamist movement, and by several human rights bodies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), including the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH)."

Reuters notes: The Socialists' USFP party announced late on Saturday that it would join the protest – the first government coalition party to do so.

Complaints about corruption and lack of civil rights figured strongly in the protests.

On March 9, the king made a speech promising a series of reform but this does not appear to have dampened the protests. Reuters quotes a government official as saying that the numbers on the streets on Sunday were "at least as many" as those who protested on February 20, before the king's speech.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 March 2011. Comment.

The Gulf dinosaurs battle on

The Gulf's dinosaurs continued their battle for survival yesterday. In Bahrain they demolished the monument on the Pearl Roundabout which had been cleared of protesters on Wednesday. The official reason was to give the area a facelift and "boost the flow of traffic", though the foreign minister said it was done to erase "a bad memory".

In Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah dipped into his pockets again and found SR500 billion or so ($133 billion), though he's not going to spend all the money immediately.

The package includes more housing and medical facilities, more welfare benefits and bonuses for government employees. Arab News has a detailed list.

Among this spending is SR200 million ($53 million) to provide more offices for the detested religious police (along with a request for the media to treat them more sympathetically), plus SR 500 million for religious institutions (Qur'an memorisation and Dawa') along with pay rises for the military and the creation of 60,000 new military jobs under the Interior Ministry – none of which can be classified under the heading of "reform".

The king did, however, announce that an anti-corruption commission will be set up – answerable to himself.

John Burgess, of the Crossroads Arabia blog, writes that the measures seem to "signal a retreat on reform":

"The ferment today, while it does include those who cry for the brakes to be put on reforms, is mostly coming from those who want liberal political reform and greater freedoms. Further empowering the religious authorities does nothing to address those concerns. Seen in company with an increase in security force staffing ... it looks as though the government has shifted toward a more repressive modality.

"Perhaps I’m being pessimistic here. I hope I am. Other than a few fatter paychecks, I don’t see how these steps are to the longterm benefit of the country or its citizens."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 19 March 2011. Comment.

Stirrings in Syria

Today, for the first time, there have been signs of real stirrings against the regime in Syria. 

It's worth recalling that just over a month ago, when a "day of rage" 
was called by opposition members in exile, the only significant presence on the streets was that of the security forces.

Today was different, and I wonder if this might be one of the unintentional consequences of Security Council resolution on Libya. The shadow of the Hama massacre in 1982 still hangs over Syrian opposition politics, but now that the Security Council has shown itself willing to tackle violent repression in Libya, Syrian protesters may be slightly less fearful of the Asad regime.

But whether or not that was a factor today, discontent surfaced on the streets in various parts of the country.

There were mass protests in the southern city of Daraa (Deraa), where five people were reportedly run over by fire engines that the security forces were using to disperse the crowds. Videos here and here. In the first video, demonstrators can be heard chanting that Rami Makhlouf, the president's businessman cousin, is a thief.

There was a protest in Homs in front of the Khaled ibn al-Walid mosque. Video here.

In Damascus, there was a demonstration inside the Umayyad mosque after Friday prayers. Video here.

There was another protest in the coastal town of Banyas. Video 

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 March 2011. Comment.

A terrible day for Yemen

It has been a truly terrible day in Yemen, with more than 40 people reported dead as a result of attacks on demonstrators by the president's supporters in Sana'a. Although armed conflict is common in Yemen, there has been nothing like this in the capital for many years.

The Egyptian Chronicles blog has some photographs, but beware – they are very graphic.

The official news agency, meanwhile, in the old Soviet tradition, is reporting mass rallies around the country backing President Salih.

Possibly the regime was hoping that with eyes turned on Libya this would escape attention, but the US has condemned the violence in no uncertain terms. 

A statement from President Obama said:

"I strongly condemn the violence that has taken place in Yemen today and call on President Saleh to adhere to his public pledge to allow demonstrations to take place peacefully.

"Those responsible for today's violence must be held accountable.

"The United States stands for a set of universal rights, including the freedom of expression and assembly, as well as political change that meets the aspirations of the Yemeni people.

"It is more important than ever for all sides to participate in an open and transparent process that addresses the legitimate concerns of the Yemeni people."

The situation in Yemen is looking increasingly insoluble. The problem is not merely how to get rid of Salih but what will happen after he goes. The longer he clings on, the more difficult it will be to achieve a peaceful transition – and it may even be too late for that already.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 March 2011. Comment.

UPDATE, 19 March: Human Rights Watch has issued a statement about the killings, calling for an immediate suspension of military aid to Yemen.

UN resolutions on Libya

For reference purposes, I have added the text of the two most recent UN Security Council resolutions on Libya to the documents section of this website.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 March 2011. Comment.

Forces clear Bahrain protest camp 

Reports from Bahrain say that security forces launched an attack on the camp at Pearl Roundabout early this morning and cleared it of protesters (photographs here).

Helicopters were reported overhead and tents were set on fire. It is unclear whether the attack involved any of the Saudi forces who entered Bahrain on Monday. Tear gas was reportedly used.

At present, details are scarce, but the BBC has a report here. Below is another picture posted on yfrog.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 March 2011, 05.30 GMT. Comment.

UPDATE, 08.00 GMT: Writing about this morning's events for the Guardian's website, Martin Chulov says:

Gunfire was heard throughout the capital and at least five helicopters were circling scenes of clashes, amid widespread panic on the streets below.

Riot police entered Manama's Salmaniya medical centre for the first time since the demonstrations began and doctors reported they were being prevented from reaching the hospital and treating patients inside. The police were also preventing casualties from reaching the facility. By 8am, they had closed its main gate and stationed forces outside.

The price of 'traditional values'

Writing in the Crossroads Arabia bog, John Burgess discusses the Saudi military intervention in Bahrain and concludes:

Once again, the Middle East demonstrates its problem with missed opportunities. Had Bahrain not treated its majority Shi’ite population less well than its Sunni minority, there would be no cause for unrest. 

The same applies to Saudi Arabia. Had the governments bothered to distinguish the different Shi’ite sects, rather than lumping them into one entity, they might have found willing partners. Had they not continued to demonise Shi’ism itself, they would not be facing sectarian as well as political issues today. Had they not put off reforming their political and social systems, all in the name of ‘traditional values’, they would not be faced with demands for those reforms to be made now, with no further delay. 

Had they seen the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 as a warning sign rather than an immediate threat, those governments might have started making changes 20 years ago instead of being confronted with angry mobs.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 March 2011. Comment.

Previous blog posts




March 2011

Assad's moment of truth

Organised chaos in Yemen

Gaddafi's exit strategy?

Revolutionary updates, 27 March

Assad: waving goodbye?

Revolutionary updates: 24 March

Yemen: Why Salih must go now

Yemen: military manoeuvres

Revolutionary updates: 21 March

The Gulf dinosaurs battle on

Stirrings in Syria

A terrible day for Yemen

UN resolutions on Libya

Forces clear Bahrain protest camp

The price of 'traditional values'

Britain's role in Yemeni violence

Women in Saudi jails 'almost all' foreigners

Saudis' day of inaction

Yemeni elections delayed

Saudi Arabia's turn?

Moroccan king promises reform

Jail sentences over gay party

Lebanese protest against sectarianism

More Saudi calls for reform

Saudis ban all demonstrations

Rights activist detained in Qatar

Masses on the move in Yemen

Oman's Sultan Qaboos: a classy despot

Educating Saif Gaddafi

Thuggery at Saudi book fair

Departure plan for Yemen president

Libya and its tribes

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What's Really Wrong with the Middle East  
Brian Whitaker, 2009



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Last revised on 04 April, 2011