By Dominic KavakebMirfat Sulaiman
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Resilient Revolutions: Bahrain and Yemen

This article is over 10 years, 3 months old
The Arab Spring is far from over. In the wake of controversy over the Formula One race, Dominic Kavakeb looks at the movement in Bahrain, while Mirfat Sulaiman considers the ongoing uprising in Yemen
Issue 369

“Sumood” is a common word in Bahrain at the moment. Literally translated it means “resistance”, although its meaning is closer to the idea of refusing to give in or persevering through great difficulty.

This word isn’t just a reference to the physical action of the Bahraini people it is about a mentality. It encapsulates the mindset that keeps this extraordinary population coming out onto the streets day after day, night after night, to face down repression and demand freedom.

But try as they might, the Bahraini regime cannot stop this movement, having mobilised all their repressive forces, enlisted the help of countless governments and even holding an “independent” inquiry with the help of international human rights experts.

Why has this movement refused to go away? We can find the answer in the rubble of the Pearl Monument that stood in Pearl Square in central Manama (the capital city) and was Bahrain’s answer to Tahrir Square.

On 14 February 2011, inspired by other Arab uprisings, the people of Bahrain began to mobilise in their thousands. Having suffered years of indignity under a brutal dictatorship headed by the Sunni Alkhalifa family, the majority Shi’ite population took to the streets and decided enough was enough.

While it is true that Shi’ites in Bahrain face huge political, economic and social discrimination, the movement that emerged was united under a banner of democratic change. Many Sunnis as well as Shi’ites took part in the original protests, alongside Islamists, leftists, liberals and others, to demand an end to dictatorship.

Bahrain is traditionally seen as a more liberal Gulf state, but one that still concentrates power in the hands of unelected officials, with a royal family that enjoys the majority of the wealth and power. King Hamad Isa Bin Alkhalifa’s uncle, Khalifa Bin Salman Alkhalifa, has served as prime minister for over 40 years. The supposed liberalism is merely a mask to invite Western investment and hides a deep-rooted authoritarian system that denies much of the population even a basic standard of living.

But this was swept aside in February last year. Despite the killing of two activists on the first full day of protests, Pearl Square was quickly occupied and was held for two days before a bloody night time crackdown in which three people were killed by police shotguns. Undeterred, a day later the roundabout was reoccupied and held for just under one month.

Sense of freedom

During this time ordinary Bahrainis came together and built a glimpse of the future society they dreamed of. In Pearl Square all were equal. Much like in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, all the different aspects of society came together to debate politics and social issues. All opinions were acknowledged and a sense of freedom that had been missing for so long began to emerge.

“For the first time in my life I felt what it was like to be free. I could give my opinion, chant and hold banners without the fear of arrest,” one activist told me, recollecting what he affectionately calls “the Pearl days”.

But on 16 March 2011 Saudi tanks rolled into Bahrain from the causeway linking the two countries and in a brutal clampdown cleared the roundabout, killing six people in the process. Two days later the Bahraini government tore down the symbolic Pearl Monument in the centre of the roundabout, hoping that would be the end of the movement. But the dream of the Pearl remained and it is perhaps this collective memory of what could be possible that has kept the same people out on the streets to this day.

Lethal response

At least 85 people have been killed to date in ongoing attacks on protesters. The most common weapon of choice of the security services has been toxic and lethal tear gas that has killed, among others, an 85 year old man and five day old baby. Videos put on You Tube by activists show whole villages blanketed in clouds of gas. The security forces are using tear gas not just for crowd control but as a way to asphyxiate this resistance movement and to penetrate the homes and livelihoods of the people.

Yet 14 months on from the original protests the atmosphere of “sumood” remains. Turnout on demonstrations has increased, slogans have radicalised and the people have made it very clear that they will not stop until victory.

In early March this year Bahrain witnessed the biggest demonstration in its history. The government concedes that at least 100,000 took to the streets that day, with activists suggesting the real figure was at least double the official estimate. In a country with a citizenship of around 600,000, the Bahrain uprising has had more popular participation per population than any other movement in the Arab Spring.

The official opposition parties continue to mobilise mass demonstrations, the most recent of which took place on the first day of the Formula One Grand Prix, while radicalised youths in villages take to the streets every day and night to face down riot police.

Each time they are met with extreme force, leaving Bahrain in a political stalemate. The regime is unable to crush the protests, but the movement has struggled to inflict a decisive blow. The regime has refused even minor reforms, encouraged by positive and friendly statements from Western governments.

It seems the government is prepared to accept constant instability, protests and the growing possibility of violence rather than accept change. Such arrogance could be its downfall.

Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, a jailed opposition figure, has, as I write this, been on hunger strike for two and half months. His slogan is “Freedom or death”. Having tasted freedom, albeit briefly in Pearl Square, it seems this is a slogan for the whole Bahraini movement.

It was always likely that the Arab Spring would reach Yemen. The collapse of Ben Ali’s regime in Tunisia and Mubarak’s in Egypt stirred young people’s desire for change and freedom, parallelling the mass movements in Libya and Syria.

The revolution began more than a year ago at Sana’a University, where students calling for change staged demonstrations and occupations and erected protest camps. The regime responded by killing hundreds and wounding thousands.

Yemen is one of the poorest Arab countries. Though rich in natural resources, the country is deeply in debt and scarred by mass unemployment and chronic corruption. Power and wealth are concentrated in the hands of a few at the top of the government and surrounding layers of cronies and businessmen.

But things are different in the south of the country. In 2007 a peaceful protest movement was begun by former army officers who had been forced into early retirement after the military defeat of the south by the north in 1994. During the 1970s and 1980s North Yemen was allied with the US, while South Yemen (then a separate country) was allied with Russia. The two countries had a number of wars with each other during that period. A four-year provisional unity agreement was reached in 1990, at the end of which the South withdrew from the agreement and declared itself independent. After a short war, the South was forced to reunify with the North. Saleh assumed overall control of South Yemen and began exploiting its natural and human resources.

Inspired by the Arab Spring
The new movements for change that emerged in Sana’a, Taiz and other northern districts were inspired by the Arab Spring and were distinct from the movement in the south. They demanded regime change but under a united Yemen flag. The movement in the South by contrast calls for separation from the unified Yemeni state.

However, in a few squares in the South there were occupations similar to those in the northern cities led by the Al-Islah party, which presents itself as an Islamic party. It was founded by Abdullah bin Husayn bin Nasser al-Ahmar, who represents the other wing of Saleh’s Hashid tribe. Al-Islah was created as a rival to Saleh’s General Public Conference party and has sometimes been a partner in power and sometimes been in opposition.

Recent presidential elections had only one candidate – Saleh’s former vice president Hadi. These elections were brokered by the Gulf States and the US under pressure from popular demands for change. In return for agreeing to step down as president, Saleh was handed immunity from prosecution. The election was boycotted across the South and by some in the North. Many of those who voted did so because they saw getting rid of Saleh as a big step forward, fearing that a low turnout might keep Saleh in power.

However, Saleh’s is no longer president, his regime is still in place and is run by his sons, nephews, in-laws and tribe. Saleh himself is still in Yemen interfering in political issues. He is still head of the ruling party and still attends parliament.

Other opposition to the regime includes the North Yemen Shia Houthi grouping, who Saleh accuses of being supported by Iran, and an expanding military group called Ansar-al Sharia who have recently seized cities in the South, proclaiming the region an Islamic state. Thousands of inhabitants have fled to live as internal refugees in neighbouring cities.

Drone attacks
Recent evidence shows that unannounced US drone attacks have greatly increased in the area, causing many casualties. Southerners have reasons to believe there is a growing US military presence in the isolated but strategically useful Yemeni Island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean. The US has been a long-time supporter of Saleh, providing military aid, training and intelligence in name of the so-called “war on terror”. US businesses have plans to develop petrol refineries and nuclear power stations, while Britain has a long and ongoing history of military and diplomatic support for the regime.

The situation in the South is becoming more dangerous. US involvement is intensifying, with the US citing both Iran and al-Qaeda to justify intervention. US troops operate in Aden and have assisted in recent attacks on alleged militants beyond its boundaries. The Saudis also have been working hard to prevent the contagion of democracy spreading in their close neighbourhood by supporting Saleh. They helped impose the treaty that grants him immunity and have criminalised any support for South Yemeni independence inside Saudi Arabia.

Revolution ongoing
Despite all the obstacles, the revolution continues throughout Yemen. The movement in northern areas is focusing on removing the rest of Saleh’s regime. Students in Sana’a have been using occupations to remove the leadership of the university which are linked to Saleh. There have been big protests within the army, security services and air force against the influence of Saleh’s relatives.

Large groups of workers have struck demanding the purging of managers linked to the Saleh family and their associates, and for better pay and conditions. While the US government and media constantly emphasise the presence of Islamists in the South with alleged links to al-Qaeda, they downplay the peaceful mass movement for Southern independence.

Change in Yemen is now almost inevitable. It is demanded by the consistent courage, strength and sacrifice of people across the country.

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