Some things that the brave protestors in the Arab and Persian worlds have taught us:
1. Non-violence is the most effective weapon against violence. As Gene Sharp notes in “From Dictatorship to Democracy”
Since 1980 dictatorships have collapsed before the predominantly nonviolent defiance of people in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Slovenia, Madagascar, Mali, Bolivia, and the Philippines. Nonviolent resistance has furthered the movement toward democratization in Nepal, Zambia, South Korea, Chile, Argentina, Haiti, Brazil, Uruguay, Malawi, Thailand, Bulgaria, Hungary, Nigeria, and various parts of the former Soviet Union (playing a significant role in the defeat of the August 1991 attempted hard-line coup d’état).
People–even soldiers and policemen–do not willingly fire on unarmed, peaceful protestors. Leaders of nations that claim to be democracies have a hard time keeping themselves elected when they openly support dictators who slaughter and pillage their people. Although it took a painfully long time for the Obama administration to declare its allegiance to the democratic activists in the streets, US ties to the military and pressure probably had much to do with the fall of Mubarak and his thugs. But other nations, such as Britain, Germany, and France, have also had to withdraw their support for Mubarak and the other autocratic rulers of countries around the Mediterranean ocean and Red Sea that are currently up in arms: Libya, Bahrain, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, and Yemen.
Today’s Times has a good summary of unrest in the region:
LIBYA There were violent demonstrations in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city, for a third day. Human rights groups said 24 people had been killed across the country, although activists say the count could be much higher
BAHRAIN The army opened fire on pro-democracy demonstrators, and when ambulances arrived to tend to the wounded, the soldiers opened fire again. Doctors at one hospital said that at least one person died and that four or five were critically wounded.
EGYPT Millions of people assembled in Tahrir Square in Cairo to celebrate the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak a week ago and to press the military to make good on its promise to move toward democracy.
YEMEN Yemeni media reported that four protesters died in the port city of Aden in battles with the police, and there were clashes in two other cities between people demonstrating for and against President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
JORDAN Government supporters fought with demonstrators calling for political change in Amman, the capital, and several people were injured, witnesses said.
KUWAIT More than 1,000 stateless Arabs demonstrated in the city of Jahra demanding citizenship, with dozens of people arrested by the police, according to witnesses. The demonstration was broken up by security forces using smoke bombs and water cannons.
DJIBOUTI About 6,000 people turned out to protest against the government of President Ismail Omar Guelleh, and security forces used batons and tear gas to disperse the crowd. Among the issues is a constitutional change that did away with a two-term limit for the president.
TUNISIA The transitional government approved a general amnesty of the country’s political prisoners. In addition, at least three people were injured when security forces fired in the air to break up a demonstration by hundreds of Islamists protesting against a brothel in Tunis, the capital.
2. The United States, Britain and many other so-called “democratic” nations have long supported brutal regimes that have terrorized, imprisoned, and tortured their people, and this practice has neither guaranteed stability nor made them many friends in the world.
The U.S. helped to overthrow Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh, a democratically elected prime minister, who nationalized Iran’s petroleum industry and oil reserves. Reactionary anti-communist forces in both Britain and the U.S. engaged in a successful plot to overthrow Mossadegh, installing Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as the puppet autocratic ruler of Iran. The outrage and resentment that this criminal act fostered in the Iranian people led directly to the rise of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the 1979 Revolution, and and the current, murderous regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
US SUPPORT FOR DICTATORSHIP AND REPRESSIVE REGIMES IN THE MIDDLE EAST
The U.S. obviously does not support the government of Iran, but it has been very friendly and helpful to numerous other near-dictatorships in the Middle East:
Libya: A small elite benefit from most of this country’s rich oil reserves. The U.S. closed its military bases in Libya in 1970 and cut off economic and diplomatic relations with the country after it was implicated in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Relations were restored in 2005. There is no freedom of speech or information in Libya. According to the New York Times,
the Libyan government has tried to impose a blackout on the country. Foreign journalists cannot enter. Internet access has been almost totally severed, with only occasional access, though some protesters appear to be using satellite connections or phoning information to services outside the country. Al Jazeera, viewed by many as a cheerleader for the democracy movements stirring the region, has been taken off the air. Several people and intermediaries said Libyans were reluctant to talk to the foreign press via phone, fearing reprisals from the security forces.
The U.S. Department of State reports that Quadafhi has pursued a policy against Islamic fundamentalism that has potentially turned elements of the military against him. The Bush administration normalized relations with Libya in 2009 and in 2010 the U.S. signed a trade agreement with the country.
Breaking news reports about Libya on Twitter suggest that 250 demonstrators were killed in air strikes today. It is also rumored that Libyan ambassador to the UN ambassador has asked Quadhafi to step down.
Bahrain: This tiny kingdom on the Persian Gulf is a strategic asset in U.S. foreign policy. It has been a base for U.S. operations since 1947. The monarch and ruling class are Sunni, while the majority of the population are Shiite. The Sunni minority enjoys the majority of the country’s resources and civic benefits. Nicholas Kristof reports today that:
Here in Bahrain, we have been in bed with a minority Sunni elite that has presided over a tolerant, open and economically dynamic country — but it’s an elite that is also steeped in corruption, repression and profound discrimination toward the Shia population. If you parachute into a neighborhood in Bahrain, you can tell at once whether it is Sunni or Shia: if it has good roads and sewers and is well maintained, it is Sunni; otherwise, it is Shia.
A 20-year-old medical student, Ghadeer, told me that her Sunni classmates all get government scholarships and public-sector jobs; the Shiites pay their own way and can’t find work in the public sector. Likewise, Shiites are overwhelmingly excluded from the police and armed forces, which instead rely on mercenaries from Sunni countries. We give aid to these oligarchs to outfit their police forces to keep the Shiites down; we should follow Britain’s example and immediately suspend such transfers until it is clear that the government will not again attack peaceful, unarmed protesters.
The people of Bahrain have been protesting these injustices for nine consecutive days. At least 7 people have been killed and hundreds have been injured.
Egypt: The U.S. substantially supported the autocratic regime of President Hosni Mubarak, whom protestors forced to step down on February 11, 2011. For examples of the brutality of this government, see for example, this article, and also this Human Rights Watch report on police torture.
Yemen: The U.S. and Britain have both invested heavily in the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, whom they have considered a friend in the so-called “war against terror.” The U.S. Department of State reports that
In FY 2009 U.S. Foreign Military Financing (FMF) for Yemen was $2.8 million, International Military Education and Training (IMET) was $1 million, and Non-Proliferation, Anti-Terrorism, Demining and Related Programs (NADR) was $2.5 million. In FY 2009 Yemen also received $19.8 million in Economic Support Funds (ESF), $11.2 million in development assistance, and $67.1 million in Section 1206 funding.
Critics of the government, such as Tawakul Karman, have long complained that Saleh has done little or nothing to stop the rise of Al Quaeda within its borders. Protesters in Yemen began their uprising by calling for democratic reforms, but lately more of them have insisted that Saleh step down and make way for a more democratic government.Human Rights Watch reports on the violent suppression of journalists, academics, and other opinion makers who support a more egalitarian distribution of resources and civil rights in the country here..
On the 11th consecutive day of protests, the President, whose forces killed a teenager and wounded four other people in Aden, compared the current enthusiasm for democracy to a disease:
This is a virus and is not part of our heritage or the culture of the Yemeni people,” he told reporters. “It’s a virus that came from Tunisia to Egypt. And to some regions, the scent of the fever is like influenza. As soon as you sit with someone who is infected, you’ll be infected.
Jordan: The U.S. Department of State describes relations between the United States and Jordan as having been “close for 6 decades, with 2009 marking the 60th anniversary of U.S.-Jordanian ties.” Human Rights Watch reports that torture is rife in the Jordanian prison system and that restrictive laws suppress civil rights in the country at large.
King Abdullah, who succeeded his father, the late King Hussein, in 1999, has promised to institute reforms. Many of the protesters are fiercely critical of the 1994 Jordanian-Israeli Peace Treaty.
Kuwait: Bedouins peacefully demonstrating in front of a mosque were drawn into a violent scuffle with special security forces and operatives. Arab Times reported that 1500 special security forces and 500 operatives got involved, and that 20 people sustained injuries while about 60 people were arrested. Apparently before this fight broke out, women protesters met with Assistant Undersecretary for Public Security Major General Khalil Al-Shemali. Many Beduoins, considered to be stateless Arabs, have claimed Kuwaiti citizenship, but the government has rejected their requests and claimed that their ancestors came from elsewhere. It launched a crackdown on the Bedouins, who may not obtain drivers licenses, birth or death certificates, or marriage contracts, in 2000. There are about 100,000 stateless persons living in Bedouins, many in abject poverty.
The U.S. Department of State reports that
The United States is currently Kuwait’s largest supplier of goods and services, and Kuwait is the fifth-largest market in the Middle East. U.S. exports to Kuwait totaled $2.14 billion in 2006.
Djibouti: While today’s NYTimes reports that only 6,000 protesters demonstrated against the government in this country (see above), the Financial Times states that, according to oppositions leaders, more than 30,000 people protested on Friday against the rule of Ismail Ghuelleh, who nullified a constitutional tw0-term limit so that he could stand for office again last year. According to a protestor interviewed by the FT, the people have come out into the streets to demonstrate against “dictatorship, bad government, lack of democracy and dynastic succession.” According the U.S. Department of State:
The government established a minister for women’s affairs and is engaged in an ongoing effort to increase public recognition of women’s rights and to ensure enforcement. The government is leading efforts to stop illegal and abusive traditional practices, including female genital mutilation. As the result of an ongoing effort, the percentage of girls attending primary school increased significantly and is now more than 50%. However, women’s rights and family planning continue to face difficult challenges, many stemming from acute poverty in both rural and urban areas. With female ministers and members of parliament, the presence of women in government has increased. Despite the gains, education of girls still lags behind boys, and employment opportunities are better for male applicants.
This report also states that
The Djiboutian Government has been very supportive of U.S. and Western interests, particularly since the Gulf crisis of 1990-91 and after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. President Guelleh continues to take a very proactive position against terrorism.
Tunisia: Civil resistance and pro-democracy demonstrations led to the ouster of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on 14 January 2011. Fed up with high unemployment, little freedom of speech, corruption,and food inflation. They began on December 17, 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, set himself on fire.
The U.S. has regarded Tunisia as a friend and stalwart ally for a very long time–the U.S. State Department boasts that the relationship goes back 200 years. Through the U.S.-North African Economic Partnership (USNAEP), designed to promote U.S. investment in, and economic integration of, the Maghreb region, and the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), which aimed to foster economic reform projects while adding bilateral and regional projects for education reform, civil society development, and women’s empowerment, Tunisia received more than $4 million in assistance from the U.S. from 2001 to 2005. Amnesty International paints a much darker picture of Tunisia before the uprising. It charged that the government of had misled the world about the states of human rights in and observed
In their efforts to prevent the formation of what they call “terrorist cells” inside Tunisia, the authorities have been responsible for arbitrary arrests and detentions which breach Tunisian law, and have forcibly disappeared detainees, used torture and other ill-treatment and tried, convicted and sentenced people using unfair proceedings. In addition, they have tried civilians before military courts and produced little evidence to substantiate the charges.
Pro-democracy protestors in all these countries have bravely withstood tanks, assault weapons, tear gas, and beatings. People died tragically when government forces attacked them, but the military and police forces in these countries eventually backed off for a complex set of reasons. The most important of these reasons is that the soldiers and police were finally unwilling to slaughter unarmed, peaceful protestors. Another significant factor is that the United States, which has historically supported these unjust regimes, threatened to withdraw their support if the government did not stop killing their citizens.
I am hoping that President Barak Obama will stand up for democracy in a way that few of his predecessors have done. But I am obviously not just hoping silently. I am speaking out here on this blog. I hope that you will also speak out in support of democracy everywhere, including in our country. On this, please see Paul Krugman’s excellent editorial about the threat to democracy here at home.