Repression and hypocrisy in Arab world

Pro-democracy protests in Bahrain, February 17.

Sixty-two protesters had been killed by Syrian security forces on April 29, Al Jazeera reported that day. This was the second Friday in a row that Syrian authorities had used lethal forces against protesters — 100 protesters were killed in Deraa on April 22.

The United States responded by imposing sanctions on three leading figures in the regime — including President Bashar al-Assad’s brother, but not the president — and the Syrian intelligence agency.

US President Barack Obama said the sanctions were in response to “human rights abuses, including those related to the repression of the people in Syria, manifested most recently by the use of violence and torture”, the ABC reported on April 30.

US Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair John Kerry said the move “puts Syria’s leaders on notice that decisions to kill unarmed civilians have consequences”. But they are unlikely to have much effect — sanctions banning most trade between the countries have been in place since 2004.

However, decisions to kill unarmed civilians have fewer consequences for rulers who are loyal allies of the West, such as King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain and President Ali Abdallah Saleh of Yemen.

The security forces of both countries also shot protesters on April 29, without condemnation from Western leaders. The continuing protests in Bahrain and Yemen, and the violent regime responses, have received considerably less attention in the Western media than in Syria.

This double-standard has marked the West’s response to the Middle Eastern uprisings since their outset. It has always been the West’s attitude to democracy and human rights in the Third World: they are not things that should get in the way of access to resources, neoliberal economic policies or geostrategic interests, but can be useful slogans for point-scoring against adversaries or justifying wars.

Democratic movements against governments in varying degrees of conflict with the West, such as those of Syria and Iran, are deemed legitimate, but those against Western allies are not.

The revolts that began in Tunisia in January and have swept all parts of the Arab world reflect the frustration of ordinary people with political tyranny and the poverty caused by neoliberalism.

The Syrian regime has annoyed the West by supporting national liberation movements such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, but it is still a neoliberal dictatorship.

The Syrian protests are not, as the regime claims, instigated by Zionist and imperialist agents. They are driven by the same popular aspirations that are driving the protests against pro-Western regimes.

The Syrian protests began in early March in Deraa in Syria’s south. The combination of brutal repression and concessions from the government failed to stop the protests spreading to other cities, towns and villages.

The repression undermined concessions that may have otherwise satisfied the protesters.

One concession was the lifting of the 48-year-old Emergency Law on April 21. This law banned protests and political organising, and allowed for media censorship and arbitrary arrests.

The day after the law was repealed, the regime massacred protesters in Deraa. It placed the city under a military siege, made hundreds of arrests and shut down telecommunications, Al Jazeera reported.

The siege of Deraa has remained. It made the lifting of Emergency Law meaningless and failed to stop protests continuing and spreading.

On April 29 protests took place throughout Syria, including in the centre of the capital, Damascus. There were reports that in Deraa some troops had defected to the protesters, Al Jazeera said.

Despite the sanctions and condemnations, the West has not threatened military intervention in Syria. Some Western media reports have speculated that this is because, despite its support for Hezbollah and Hamas in Palestine, the Assad regime posed no real threat to the West or its local proxy, Israel.

On April 29, Voice of America quoted Israel’s former intelligence chief Ephraim Halevy as saying: “We are concerned that in the event that Assad would ultimately have to leave the presidency in one form or another, we are faced with a host of imponderables.

“We have no idea who will take over.”

However, the Libyan regime of Muammar Gaddafi was more closely aligned with the West than Syria under Assad. What prompted the Western military intervention in Libya was the opportunity provided by Gaddafi’s crimes and the weakness of the rebels for the West to reassert itself militarily — as well as a core of regime defectors willing to form a pro-Western counter government.

Western military intervention in Syria cannot be ruled out should a similar opportunity arise.

Regardless of whether the West intervenes militarily in Syria, or prefers to see Assad remain, the contrast in the response to the Saleh regime’s violence against protesters in Yemen is stark.

In Syria and Yemen hundreds of protesters have been killed. Yemen, however, is a “war on terror” ally of the West. The Saleh regime received generous military aid in return for allowing US forces to operate on Yemeni soil.

Saleh has tended to use this military aid against internal opponents — Zaidi Shi’ite tribal rebels in the north and secular secessionists in the south — rather than against the small number of al-Qaeda terrorists taking refuge in remote parts of the country.

This earned Saleh some rebukes from US leaders for not going after al-Qaeda hard enough, most recently from Hillary Clinton during a January 11 visit, just before the protests started.

With these rebukes has come more military aid.

This aid is now being used against protesters, but deliveries have continued.

“Witnesses have … been reporting the increased use of military helicopters in the crackdown,” said on April 28. “Some of those aircraft may be recent additions to Saleh’s arsenal, provided courtesy of the Obama administration as part of an [US]$83 million military aviation aid package.

“Since the beginning of 2011, under a program run by the US Department of Defense, the United States has overseen the delivery of several new Bell UH-1Hs, or ‘Huey II’ helicopters.”

Security forces have deployed US-supplied weapons against protesters throughout the country as the US continues to wage its “war on terror”.

The April 26 Yemen Times reported a US drone strike in the village of Amfryad in Abyan governorate on April 24.

No one was killed in this attack, but a December 2009 US missile strike in Abyan governorate killed 55 civilians, including 21 children.

On April 26, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), an alliance of US client states led by Saudi Arabia, brokered a deal between Saleh and the parliamentary opposition under which the dictator would depart within 30 days of the deal’s signing on April 3.

However, Saleh and his family would be immune from prosecution.

Protesters opposed this compromise and resolved to continue their struggle. This resolve was strengthened when security forces killed 12 demonstrators on April 27. On April 29, more than 300,000 people marched in Sana’a, the Yemen Times reported.

On April 28, a Bahraini military court sentenced four protesters to death and three others to life in jail for allegedly killing two police officers.

Most Western leaders have been conspicuously silent about this. However, news agency IRNA reported on April 29 that the president of the European Parliament Jerzy Buzek issued a statement saying: “I condemn the sentencing to death of the four protesters in Bahrain and I call for their sentences to be reviewed. The fact that the trial took place behind closed doors is deplorable.”

Bahrain is an absolutist monarchy. It is also a member of the GCC and base of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

Pro-democracy protests began in mid-February. Despite the use of foreign mercenaries, sourced from Pakistan with the help of the country’s US-backed government, the regime of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa was unable to quell them.

On March 15, Saudi Arabia invaded to crush the protests, under the auspices of the GCC’s provisions for mutual defence. US Defence Secretary Robert Gates supported the GCC’s claims that the Bahraini monarchy was being threatened by Iranian interference, Al Arabiya said on March 24.

In the ensuing crackdown about 100 people were killed or disappeared. Several hundred others were arrested and tortured. A report by the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based group Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) described the beating and torture of seriously injured protesters, the April 22 Independent reported.

It also detailed the arrest and abuse of doctors treating them, after Saudi and Bahraini troops took over hospitals and clinics.

The PHR said police “forcibly removed ambulance medics from the vehicles, made them remove their uniforms at gunpoint, and then posed as medics, reportedly to get closer to injured protesters to detain them”.

The death sentences have reignited the Bahraini protests. On April 29, thousands of people demonstrated in the capital, Manama, Reuters reported.

The Reuters report, in common with most of the minimal media coverage of Bahrain, portrayed the protests in terms of sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

However, while the Bahraini and Saudi monarchies promote anti-Shia sectarianism, the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain has united Sunni, Shia and secular with demands focusing on political and economic justice.

On April 29 there were protests in solidarity with Bahrain, and against the death sentences, in Saudi Arabia.

Press TV reported that “hundreds” protested in Qatif and five were injured by riot police, while women held a candlelit vigil in Awamiyah.