Bahrain and Yemen: Two different revolutions
This afternoon I spoke to the Foundation for Defense of Democracy's Steve Sotloff, who has been traveling in the Middle East, recently to Egypt and Bahrain and now en route to Libya.
Much of the news, understandably, has focused on the Egyptian revolution and the bloody massacre in Libya. But two more countries, Bahrain and Yemen, Sotloff points out, "have been inspired by Tunisia and Egypt." The regimes and popular reaction in these two countries, however, is quite different.
In Bahrain, Sotloff explains, the U.S. government "put a lot of pressure" on the regime. Under that pressure, the king ordered the military to withdraw and protesters were able to retake Pearl Square, which has become the Tahrir Square for Bahrainian protesters. The protesters, Sotloff reports, are mostly young Shiites. (Shiites make up roughly 70 percent of the country but consider themselves a repressed and discriminated-against group under the thumb of the Sunni ruling class.) Indeed the opposition party and the leading force in the protests is a religious Shiite party, although its aims and rhetoric so far have been secular.
The Bahrainian regime has expressed a willingness to sit down with the protesters, says Sotloff, although he warns that "it has promised to before but with no follow through." In Bahrain, the United States "has a lot of leverage," explains Sotloff, given its long-standing ties and the presence of our Fifth Fleet.
What could we productively do? Sotloff complains that in all of these uprisings the United States has been a "passive observer." However, he contends that "there is time for Bahrain." In addition to direct U.S. pressure for reform, Sotloff acknowledges that Saudi Arabia remains a central player and an oil supplier to the kingdom. (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been working with Saudis, as Sotloff suggests she should.)
Yemen, however, is an entirely different story. Sotloff thinks the regime has "seven to 10 days" and is in "very serious trouble." Sotloff describes mass defections from tribal allies of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh, strikes that have paralyzed the harbor, and angry protests calling for Saleh's ouster. In the city of Taiz, Sotloff says, there have been mass protests, while Saleh is engaged in a bloody crackdown against secessionists in the south. Sotloff notes that the United States has "invested" a lot in Saleh in the battle against al-Qaeda terrorists. But at this stage, Sotloff thinks it "is not clear he's going to survive." Moreover, he cautions that what follows may be far less friendly to the United States.
Each of these countries, as is true in Libya, Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, has its own dynamic. But, regrettably, there is one constant. According to Sotloff, the U.S. approach has been "so discombobulated," continually lagging events. He says dismissively that while the administration wrung its hand about U.S. nationals in Libya, people "were being slaughtered." Meanwhile, the French have taken the lead in assisting the rebels. Sotloff says, "We're behind the French on this one."
Sotloff advises that in Libya, Bahrain and elsewhere, the United States still has many options to influence events. The real question is whether we have the finesse and the will to wield that influence effectively.
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