Protests continue in Bahrain and Yemen

By Andrea Peters
16 February 2011

Anti-government protests continued in the island kingdom of Bahrain on Tuesday, with news reports indicating that thousands were gathering in the capital city of Manama. Crowds swelled over the course of the day following the fatal shooting of Fadhel Ali Almatrook by riot police. The man was killed while participating in a funeral procession for another protester.

On Tuesday morning around 2,000 people assembled outside the Salmaniya Medical Complex to accompany the body of a man slain during demonstrations on Monday. Police attacked the mourners while they attempted to make their way from the hospital to the cemetery, spraying tear gas and firing pellet guns. Almatrook was shot at close range.

News of the latest fatality brought more people out onto the streets, with protesters occupying Pearl Square, a major artery in the center of the capital’s financial district.

“Some men helped direct traffic through the crowds, while others formed human chains in front of groups of female protesters,” reported the Wall Street Journal.

“Mother, prepare my coffin, because I’m going to free my country,” protesters chanted. Police cars encircled the crowd, whose demands have reportedly grown increasingly radical over several days of demonstrations. Those assembled called for the downfall of the Bahraini regime, an oppressive US-backed Sunni monarchy that rules over a dispossessed Shi’ite majority population.

The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights told Al Jazeera that the two recent deaths of protesters, along with dozens of injuries, were the result of the use of “excessive force” by police, who have moved aggressively to try to disperse demonstrators. King Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa offered condolences on Tuesday to the families of the two dead demonstrators and said an investigation would occur, although his government has indicated that it regards the police response as proportionate.

Speaking to the WSJ, one woman indicated that protesters were not deterred by the violence. “We’re not afraid of their jails, we’re not afraid of death, we’re willing to give our own blood and our own sons,” she said.

Inspired by the overthrow of the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, Bahrain’s oppressed Shi’ite population has mobilized around longstanding grievances over jobs, wages and government discrimination.

Clashes between government forces and enraged youth occur with some regularity in the country. Shi’ite political leaders were arrested in the recent past over opposition to parliamentary elections held in September 2010. Representatives from the main Shi’ite opposition bloc, Al-Wefaq, walked out of parliament on Tuesday.

However, Amira Al Hussaini, a Bahrainian blogger, told Al Jazeera that the current protests go beyond the country’s historical Sunni-Shi’ite divide. “This is being pitted as a sectarian issue—the Shia wanting to overthrow the regime. But it is not a Shia uprising,” she said, insisting that people from different religious backgrounds were participating in the demonstrations.

In confronting this growing wave of opposition, the Bahraini monarchy’s most critical prop is the United States, whose Fifth Naval Fleet is stationed at the island nation. WikiLeaks cables published on Tuesday document the strong relationship between King Hamad’s regime, the White House, and American big business.

A December 2, 2009 dispatch, which describes King Hamad as “personable and engaging,” notes, “US companies have won major contracts in the past two years, including: Gulf Air’s purchase of 24 Boeing 787 Dreamliners, a USD 5 billion joint-venture with Occidental Petroleum to revitalize the Awali field, and well over USD 300 million in Foreign Military Sales.”

The cable goes on to report that the head of Bahrain’s intelligence agency, Sheikh Khalifa, “unabashedly positions his relationship with the U.S. Intelligence Community above all others, insisting that his key lieutenants communicate openly with their U.S. liaison partners and actively seek new avenues of cooperation.”

Bahrain is “ground zero when it comes to monitoring the oil flow” in the Persian Gulf, wrote Time magazine’s Mark Thompson on Tuesday, noting that the US military is nervously watching developments in Manama.

“The home of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet—and a recently-launched $580 million U.S. expansion effort slated to double the U.S. Navy’s acreage there—could be in jeopardy if Bahrain’s monarchy falls.”

In comments to Press TV, Ali al-Ahmed, director of the IGA (Institute for Gulf Affairs), maintained that without the backing of the US and its partner in the region, Saudi Arabia, King Hamad’s regime would collapse.

“The Bahraini government itself is weak. If it was not supported by the US and the Saudi monarchy it would not take but a few days for it to flee,” he said.

Political unrest sparked by recent events in Egypt is also continuing in Yemen, where anti-government protests have now entered their fifth day. On Tuesday, as crowds estimated at around 3,000 moved from Sana’a University to the palace of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, about 2,000 pro-government thugs attacked the demonstrators with batons, stones, broken bottles and daggers.

Security forces intervened with tear gas, batons and stun guns to disperse the crowd. Those on the scene report seeing uniformed officers beat anti-government demonstrators, wading in on the side of Saleh’s backers. Reuters reports four injuries, including two head wounds, although it is likely there were more.

Military checkpoints remain in place along the road to the presidential palace in Sana’a.

In Taiz, a city in Yemen’s south, “police were unable to control the crowds” during an “all-night rally,” according to the Hindustan Times. Approximately 2,500 anti-government protesters have gathered in the city and insist they will not leave until the ouster of Saleh and his relatives. Intent on staying put, they have formed “temporary organizational, security and media committees” and “purchased tents,” says the Yemen Post.

“Whatever happens to us and even though policemen and bullies continue to attack us, beat us and hurl stones at us, we will not abandon our demand,” one protest leader told the newspaper.

The official opposition in Yemen, which is thoroughly tied in with the political establishment, has refused to call for Saleh to step down, accepting the president’s promise that he would not run again in the 2013 elections.

According to the Wall Street Journal, “Opposition and ruling-party officials have said in recent interviews they were worried that non-aligned activists could mobilize on their own, triggering escalated violence.”

Of particular concern to President Saleh is the possibility that Yemen’s numerous tribes will intervene in the crisis against the government. News reports indicate that the ruling regime has been contacting the country’s various tribal leaders in an effort to win their backing.

The US plays a key role in propping up the Saleh regime. Yemen is the site of an expanding US military and intelligence operation, supposedly directed at Al Qaeda. As part of this effort, Washington funds counter-terrorism forces in Yemen, arming and training the repressive apparatus of the state. The intimate relationship between Saleh’s government and the White House was further documented recently in WikiLeaks cables, which revealed that the Yemeni regime tried to prevent the growth of anti-American sentiment in the country by falsely claiming responsibility of US drone attacks inside Yemen.

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