Did Bahrain opposition squander democracy chance?

By Andrew Hammond

MANAMA | Tue May 31, 2011 12:27pm EDT

(Reuters) – As martial law comes to an end in the Gulf Arab state of Bahrain this week, opposition activists are wondering whether they threw away what might have been the first real chance for democracy in the Gulf Arab region.

Shortly after young Bahrainis, inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, converged on a roundabout in early February, the government offered dialogue with opposition parties on political reforms. But the talks failed to get off the ground. Continue reading Did Bahrain opposition squander democracy chance?

Bahrain Shi’ite leader says backs royal family

By Andrew Hammond

MANAMA | Sun May 29, 2011 1:54pm EDT

(Reuters) – The leader of Bahrain’s main Shi’ite opposition party said on Sunday his goal was to help bring political reform, rejecting accusations of taking orders from Iran or seeking to install Shi’ite religious rule.

Sheikh Ali Salman, head of the opposition group Wefaq, said his party supported the Al Khalifa family as rulers and wanted to help the government with constitutional reforms. Continue reading Bahrain Shi’ite leader says backs royal family

Bahrain – “a hi-tech device” : Part I

I met AbdulLatif Al Mahmoud, the one-time opposition figure who emerged with the National Unity Rally after the protest movement was underway in Bahrain. The Rally was suddenly the government’s answer to the protest movement and the mass opposition movement Wefaq, which was depicted more and more as a sectarian movement aimed against Sunnis. Sunnis and true patriots joined the Rally, the official thinking is. Here’s the first part of what he said (highlights from Part II – Wefaq dragged its feet in talks cos  it was waiting for the Mahdi to come). Enjoy… Continue reading Bahrain – “a hi-tech device” : Part I

The Obama speech: Why did he bother?

The Big Speech was rather a non-event from the perspective of most people in the region, I reckon. Obama and his administration were behind the curve when the uprisings broke out. The uprisings were troubling for them because 1. (like the Iranian Revolution in 1979) they didn’t see it coming 2. the uprisings were an entirely local affair, trumping the assumption for years that democracy would only come from outside via war (like Iraq) or US pressure (post-Iraq war Bush years until Hamas won Palestinian elections) 3. as such, the uprisings have been outside US control and have the potential produce outcomes that challenge US policy in the region. That policy is pretty straightforward in its general outlines: make the Arabs and Iran accept Israel and peace with Israel on Israeli terms, challenge Iran and other forces opposed to the terms of the Pax Americana, and ensure that oil fields in Iraq and the Gulf stay in friendly hands. Continue reading The Obama speech: Why did he bother?

Arabs see Obama speech as late, not enough

By Andrew Hammond

DUBAI | Fri May 20, 2011 2:59am IST

(Reuters) – U.S. President Barack Obama’s speech on uprisings sweeping the Arab world show Washington is struggling to guide democratic movements that took it by surprise, Arab analysts said, threatening U.S. regional allies.

Obama went to Cairo University to address the Muslim world in a landmark speech in 2009 that promised support for democracy that Washington assumed would come thanks to outside pressure on entrenched rulers in countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

But on Thursday he stood at a State Department podium in Washington to discuss protest movements that have been mainly peaceful and driven by ordinary Arabs, removing autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt but so far failing to bring change in Yemen, Bahrain, Syria or Libya.

The stark contrast in settings said much about a confused U.S. reaction to Arab revolts where it has appeared to be irrelevant, and its challenge now in nudging them towards conclusions compatible with U.S. foreign policy goals.

Those include isolating Iran, ensuring continued Gulf Arab oil supplies and promoting Arab ties with Israel. Obama’s failure to end Israeli settlement activity in the occupied West Bank, where Palestinians seek statehood, has done much to quash the hope many Arabs had in him two years ago.

Reflecting that disillusion, Egyptian activist Hossam El-Hamalawy wrote on social media site Twitter: “Obama gave a speech? Really? As if I care”.

Arab analysts said Obama’s words were impressive but came largely too late and reflected U.S. fears of the consequences of uprisings without guidance from the West.

He talked of universal values of self-determination, democracy and individual rights that the United States would actively support but also of the need for “responsible regional leadership” from Egypt and Tunisia.

Emad Gad, analyst at the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, said activists had a negative view of Obama because of Washington’s long support for former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, toppled by unrest in February.

“Washington took a position against the Egyptian revolution and supported Mubarak until his final days in office. Security of Israel was the important issue,” he said, adding that the speech would do nothing to change that prevalent view.

Obama appointed a special envoy to Egypt during the unrest whose public comments suggested his remit was to save Mubarak, not meet popular demands that a dictator of 30 years must fall. Activists say massive U.S. financial aid only boosted Mubarak’s domination and stunted grassroots pressure for democracy.


Activists in other countries have been hoping for more support from Washington.

Obama made a point on Thursday of criticising Gulf Arab ally Bahrain, host to the U.S. Fifth Fleet and seen as a bulwark against Iran, for cracking down on protests led by its majority Shi’ite population.

“We have insisted publicly and privately that mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahraini citizens,” Obama said, although he added that Iran had tried to take advantage of the turmoil.

A Bahraini writer who did not wish to be named for fear of arrest praised Obama for speaking out on Bahrain, where hundreds of democracy activists have been arrested and some have died in detention.

“For the first time the United States is prepared to speak out on principles and values rather than short term interests only,” he said.

But Obama made no mention of Saudi Arabia, which sent troops to Bahrain to help quell protests there, and gave $36 billion in aid to Saudi police, military, administrators and clerics as a reward for not supporting protest calls.

Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy which tolerates no dissent, has been a lynchpin of U.S. policy in the region for decades and analysts say its rulers were shocked by Obama’s last-minute ditching of Mubarak.

“Maybe there is no uprising there but it doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t talk about democracy in these countries,” said Hassan Nafaa, an Egyptian political scientist.

Obama talked of women’s rights, in apparent reference to Saudi Arabia, but said democracy did not have to resemble the system in the United States, an apparent concession to Saudi arguments that it is an Islamic state ruling by sharia law.

On Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and Washington are working behind the scenes to ensure a dignified exit for veteran autocrat Ali Abdullah Saleh, Obama said Saleh “needs to follow through on his commitment to transfer power”.


Washington’s Gulf Arab allies fret about policy shifts in Egypt since Mubarak left office, as Cairo has opened contacts with Iran, eased the closure of its border to Hamas-ruled Gaza and backed a Palestinian unity government between the Islamist Hamas and Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas.

Obama promised debt reduction to Egypt and other aid for fledgling Egyptian and Tunisian democracies, while dampening talk of a Palestinian declaration of independence in occupied territories in September.

He went beyond his Cairo speech in 2009 by talking of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. But he reiterated his commitment to Israel’s security in borders that guarantee its future as a Jewish democratic state, a recognition Israel is demanding from Palestinians in any final peace deal.

Analysts suggested U.S. aid will have strings attached on foreign policy. “What Obama didn’t talk about today: aid conditionality,” wrote Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Centre in Qatar on Twitter.

“My prediction on Obama’s speech: Arab leaders won’t like it much. Arab reformers won’t like it much,” Hamid said. “This is the Obama style: Try to appeal to everyone and end up disappointing everyone.”

Misreading the uprisings

This piece in the New Left Review tries to make sense of the Arab uprisings but falls into the trap of believing that there is no “anti-imperial” element to the movements. Perry Anderson writes:

Notable has been one further absence in the upheaval. In the most famous of all concatenations, the European 1848–49, not just two, but three fundamental kinds of demands intertwined: political, social, national. What of the last in the Arab 2011? To date, the mass movements of this year have not produced a single anti-American or even anti-Israeli demonstration. The historic discrediting of Arab nationalism with the failure of Nasserism in Egypt is no doubt one reason for this. That subsequent resistance to American imperialism came to be identified with regimes—Syria, Iran, Libya—just as repressive as those which collude with it, offering no alternative political model to them, is another. Still, it remains striking that anti-imperialism is the dog that has not—or not yet—barked in the part of the world where imperial power is most visible. Can this last? Continue reading Misreading the uprisings