Blow-Up in the Gulf

The revolution arrives in Bahrain … and Kuwait, and the Emirates.

DOHA, Qatar — Following sympathy demonstrations in front of the Egyptian Embassy in Manama, Bahrain, on Friday, Feb. 4, protesters there have declared a "day of rage" on Feb. 14, nine years to the day after the country declared itself a constitutional monarchy. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, a Sunni, rules over a Shiite-majority population that has long called for greater political representation -- though certainly without the urgency that has characterized recent opposition rhetoric, which includes a list of 14 demands: "releasing all [political] detainees and compensating them, reforming the judiciary system … banning alcohol and prostitution … [and] halting torture and human rights abuses." Is the revolution coming to the Persian Gulf states?

The Persian Gulf was meant to be immune to the types of social and economic pressures that have been thought to be the catalysts for recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. The oil-rich Gulf monarchies, from Kuwait to Oman to Bahrain, have so far remained largely untouched by the wave of political protests sweeping across the region. But in the past few days, that has begun to change. Now, the Arabian monarchs -- historically protected from the need to democratize by their massive oil fortunes and close relations with the West -- are confronting a serious and growing threat to their legitimacy from protesters empowered by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

Bahrain has a long history of subduing its Shiite minority, which has been involved in past attempts to take over power, dating back to the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, an Iran-backed Shiite group that attempted a coup in 1981. Last August, possibly cracking down in prelude to the Oct. 23 parliamentary election, the government detained hundreds of Shiites during anti-government street protests. Many of the detainees allege that they were tortured while in jail. In the days before the election, government officials blocked the opposition party's website and banned local news coverage of the arrests.

Sheikh Ali Salman, the leader of Al Wefaq, the main Shiite political group, alleged that at least 2,000 voters were blocked from casting ballots in October because of incomplete lists. Al Wefaq has claimed that Bahraini leaders gerrymandered voting districts and created a program to give citizenship to Sunnis from across the Middle East to alter the country's demographic balance.

The government has also clamped down on the press and NGOs, said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, blocking websites and arresting activists. And 25 Shiites from last fall's round-up are currently being tried under terrorism charges (two in absentia), trials that have only inflamed sentiments on both sides.

The latest protests are being organized by the same Shiite groups that organized the last round of demonstrations in the fall. But they are joined by Islamists, human rights activists, intellectuals, and several Sunni groups, according to Christopher Davidson, an expert on the Persian Gulf region at Durham University in Britain.

In an attempt to address popular grievances, King Hamad this week ordered a hike in food subsidies and reinstated welfare support for low-income families to compensate for inflation, according to the state-run Bahrain News Agency. Opposition groups expect further concessions during a scheduled speech by the king on Feb. 12.

But these efforts may not go far enough to stave off a revolution, Davidson said.

"Bahrain is the most likely of the Gulf monarchies to face a broad opposition-led demonstration," he told me. "[The problem] is not merely a sectarian issue, but rather a widespread concern over an increasing wealth gap between regular Bahrainis and the ruling elite. I believe there is potential for an unseating of the current regime."

In a statement on their Facebook page, organizers of the Feb. 14 rally accuse the Sunni-lead government of "suppress[ing] the legitimate rights of the people" and call for a new constitution and investigations into "economic, political and social violations."

"Events in Tunisia and Egypt convinced the Bahraini [opposition] that change could happen if there is a will," said Bahraini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab. "People have realized that they are stronger than they thought."

And Bahrain seems to just be the tip of the spear. Unrest is spreading across the Gulf states, with coordinated anti-government protests also planned in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

"By the beginning of March, we will have an idea if serious unrest in the Gulf is likely," said Davidson.

In Kuwait, planned protests are being scheduled to coincide with the upcoming 50th anniversary of the country's independence from the British Empire. The Kuwaiti government also appears to be shelling out for domestic peace. In an attempt to stave off discontent, the government recently announced a $5 billion domestic aid package. And just a day after the protests broke out in Egypt, the Kuwaiti parliament approved further legislation to grant each citizen 1,000 Kuwaiti dinars, or $3,580, and subsidize the cost of basic food items over the next 14 months. The payouts will begin Feb. 24 and will be given to all Kuwaitis over 21 years old.

The emir's office claimed that this grant was a one-time deal to celebrate Kuwait's 50th anniversary of independence. But, "given the nature of the gift -- specifically to offset high food costs -- this seems to be too much of a coincidence," Davidson said.

Meanwhile, in another attempt to show good faith, Kuwait Interior Minister Sheikh Jaber al-Khaled al-Sabah resigned this week amid an investigation that a Kuwaiti citizen was tortured to death in police custody.

A cross-faction opposition group called "The Fifth Fence" postponed until March 8 a planned anti-government rally as a result of the minister's resignation. "We still believe that the departure of this government is the only step that fulfils our demands," the group said in a statement promising that demonstrations would continue.

Activists in the United Arab Emirates have also begun to mass in protest of the government's treatment of citizen bloggers and activists.

In July, police arrested four UAE citizens after they attempted to organize a protest against an increase in gas prices, according to a Human Rights Watch report released last month. Educated youth in the UAE are angry with the governments' strong-arm tactics to curtail freedom of speech and association, and citizens in the poorer emirates are angry about fewer job opportunities.

Here, the opposition is made up of an educated younger generation, along with Islamists and citizens of poorer emirates such as Ras al Khaimah. Unlike in Bahrain and Kuwait, no large-scale protests have yet been planned. But human rights bloggers and student activists took to Twitter and Facebook to decry the arrest last week of a former teacher, Hasan Muhammad al-Hammadi, who was arrested after coming out in support of Egypt's anti-Mubarak demonstrations in a speech during Friday prayers. UAE officials were outspoken in their support for Hosni Mubarak from the beginning of clashes in Egypt.

If there's a quiet spot in the region right now, it's Qatar, the world's top liquefied natural gas exporter, which experts say is unlikely to experience anything like the agitation going on in Bahrain and Kuwait. Qatar has never suffered rulers as oppressive as those in Bahrain or, certainly, in Egypt. Meanwhile, its GDP is huge and the country is booming, expecting to spend $100 billion over the next five years on infrastructure projects including road and rail networks planned before it was chosen as host of the 2022 soccer World Cup, as well as air-conditioned stadiums. As a result, Qataris see their interests as aligned with the government's.

The same is probably not true for Qatar's neighbors -- as we will learn for certain very, very soon.



What Happens When an Irresistible Force Meets an Immovable Object?

As the reality of Mubarak's defiance sets in, the protesters in Tahrir Square plan their next move.

CAIRO – There was a nanosecond of stunned silence as it became clear to the crowd in Tahrir Square that Hosni Mubarak was not, in fact, leaving.

And then, for some, a sudden explosion of shock and anger. "He wants blood," one 30-something man behind me kept repeating. "He wants blood." Another muttered darkly that America must have been behind the president's decision to stay in office, if only in name.

Many immediately took their shoes off and waved them furiously in the air, shouting "Irhal!" -- Leave! -- the oft-heard cry that has become the Egyptian protest movement's singular point of focus.

Others wandered the square in a daze, tears welling up in their eyes as they processed the evening's emotional roller-coaster ride. Hours earlier, a flurry of statements, purported leaks, and unconfirmed rumors (the airport road is closed! The president is in Sharm el-Sheikh!) made it seem to all that Mubarak had finally realized it was time to go. A top military officer even appeared in the square to assure the Tahriris that all of their demands would be met.

As the crowd swelled to its largest nighttime size yet, smiles widened and songs and chants broke out in the suddenly festive square, among them the popular refrain, "We won't leave; he's the one who's leaving."

Instead, Mubarak said he was turning over his powers to his vice president, Omar Suleiman, rejected calls for his immediate departure, and stopped well short of meeting the protesters' demands. "I will not leave," he said flatly, echoing his earlier declaration that he would "die on the soil of Egypt."

Several minutes passed as the "revolutionary committee" -- the recently formed coalition of youth groups involved in planning the original January 25 protest -- huddled to plot its next move. Even before it had reached a decision, the call went out on the loudspeaker: Friday's countrywide demonstrations would go ahead as planned. It was time to seize the Information Ministry, a massive circular structure along the Nile corniche that doubles as the state television headquarters; and the presidential palace, miles away from downtown Cairo. The revolution would go on.

As machine-gun wielding soldiers looked on impassively from atop armored personnel carriers and behind coils of razor wire, several thousand young demonstrators rushed to occupy the street in front of the Information Ministry and denounce the information minister, Anas al-Feki. Many of them vowed to stay the night, but were uncertain about what Friday -- another planned day of mass protests -- might bring in the wake of Mubarak's speech.

"We don't know what will happen tomorrow," said Nora Younis, a well-known Egyptian blogger. "It's impossible to know."

Mohamed ElBaradei, the former International Atomic Energy Agency chief who has become a leading figure in the protest movement, told Foreign Policy before Mubarak's speech that he had no confidence in the government's reform process and urged the demonstrators to "keep kicking their behinds."

"There will be more escalation," said Alaa Abdel Fattah, a blogger and activist, noting that it was far from clear the organizers could limit the crowd's ambitions to seize major government buildings, even if they wanted to. Asked how the army might respond, he said, "I don't care about what the army does. I care about what we do."

Other potential targets include the Interior Ministry, where dozens of protesters lost their lives on Friday, Jan. 28, and the following Saturday in a pitched battle for one of the most hated symbols of the regime, and Abdeen Palace near downtown, a historic residence of Egyptian presidents that is now a museum. A march on Mubarak's own presidential palace, in the distant suburb of Heliopolis, would be a far more challenging -- and likely bloody -- affair.

But Mubarak and Suleiman, who has increasingly become a target of protesters' ire, seem to have left the protesters little choice but to up the ante. So far, the regime's concessions have been tactical -- cashiering despised ministers and ruling party officials, appointing toothless advisory committees, holding a dialogue with several unimpressive opposition groups (though also including the very well-organized Muslim Brotherhood), and making vague, suspiciously familiar promises of reform.

Meanwhile the intentions of the army, which insists publicly that it respects the "legitimate demands" of the people and would never harm protesters, remain opaque. In what he called "Statement No. 1," a military spokesman said that top commanders would meet "continuously" to assess the situation -- but gave few other clues to the content of those discussions.

Judging from the size of the crowd left behind in Tahrir, ElBaradei's call for the protesters to keep occupying the square -- and perhaps now the areas in front of Parliament and the Information Ministry -- and keep pushing until their demands are met is a widely shared sentiment on the streets.

As ElBaradei put it in his interview with FP, "Mubarak was told by everybody, in every language, in every different way of putting it: ‘You need to go.' And for some reason, he's still hanging around."

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