Overview of Middle East Crackdowns and the (Varying) U.S.
Responses to Each
by Marian Wang
Police lay razor wire at Al-Sabiine square near the presidential palace to block Yemenis protesting in the capital Sanaa, on Feb. 13, 2011. (Photo credit: MOHAMMAD HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
As protests—and crackdowns—have been rippling through the Middle East, the U.S. response has varied by country.
For instance, while the Obama administration has been vocal about events in Iran, it has been relatively quiet about violence by pro-government forces in Yemen. Here’s a brief look at what’s happening in some key countries—and the U.S.’s response in each.
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Relationship status with United States: BFF
The small oil-producing country and financial center has played host to a robust U.S. military presence as home of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Bahrain’s Sunni rulers—which rule over a majority-Shi’ite population—keep “close to their American protectors,” according to a 2008 WikiLeaks cable.
What’s happening (Updated 2/18, 1:30 pm):
Brutal attacks on protesters continued on Friday as government forces fired on crowds of people gathered to mourn protesters who had died this week clashes. The New York Times reported that at least one helicopter sprayed fire on the mourners as they fled the scene. Medics and journalists were also targets in the attacks. The death toll from the latest clash is unclear, but ananguished plea for help from a Bahraini doctor—aired on Al Jazeera—said “the situation is very bad, the hospital cannot handle the number of injured.”
Early Thursday morning, hundreds of armed police stormed the public square where demonstrators had been sleeping and gathering for days. The officers fired clouds of tear gas and concussion grenades during the crackdown. At least three protesters were killed and hundreds wounded. Here’s a video clip of the attack on protesters:
The severity of the latest attacks suggests a reversal in the Bahrani government’s strategy for dealing with the opposition. Earlier this week government officials had apologized for the deaths of two protesters and promised to investigate the policemen behind those incidents. They have since declared the protests illegal and on Thursday, they defended the crackdowns as “a very important step that had to happen” to prevent the country from falling into “a sectarian abyss.”
Advocacy groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called on authorities to stop the use of “excessive police force” in attacks on peaceful protestors. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights had even stronger words for Bahrain’s government, urging it to “curb the excesses of the security apparatus and to undertake serious investigations into allegations of torture and abuse of detention rights of hundreds of political and human rights activists.” In an early effort to quell the protests, Bahrain’s king had offered to pay $2,650 to each family.
U.S. response (Updated 2/18, 1:30 pm):
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke by phone with Bahrain’s foreign minister and “stressed the need to seriously engage all sectors of society in a constructive, consultative dialogue to meet the way forward in accordance with the aspirations of the people.” She cited the need for continued reform and reiterated that Bahrain is a “friend and ally.” (Related: See our post about the praise that the U.S. lavished on its Bahrain just two months prior to these attacks.)
Asked by reporters on Wednesday about Bahrain’s unrest, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters that “what the President believes and the administration believes is that Bahrain, like all the countries in the region, needs to respect the universal right of its citizens, their right to protest, the right to have their grievances heard, and that they should refrain from violence on both sides.” Carney said the administration was watching the events in Bahrain and the region closely, but “our position on all the countries is the same at the universal-rights level.”
Earlier this week, State Department Spokesman PJ Crowley had issued the following statement:
The United States is very concerned by recent violence surrounding protests in Bahrain. We have received confirmation that two protesters in Bahrain were recently killed, and offer our condolences to the families and friends of the two individuals who lost their lives.
The United States welcomes the Government of Bahrain’s statements that it will investigate these deaths, and that it will take legal action against any unjustified use of force by Bahraini security forces. We urge that it follow through on these statements as quickly as possible. We also call on all parties to exercise restraint and refrain from violence.
Relationship status with United States: Frenemies
In a press briefing last week, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs stated, “Our relationship with the government of Yemen is incredibly important in addressing the counterterrorism threat that exists there.” As WikiLeaks cables revealed last fall, the country’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has allowed secret U.S. air strikes against suspected al-Qaeda militants and covered them up, claiming they were conducted by the Yemeni military. However, some analysts have said Yemen is playing a double game—diverting U.S. aid to fight domestic rebels instead of going after al-Qaeda.
It’s the sixth day of protests in Yemen, and Al Jazeera reports today that protests there are “spiraling out of control.” Two have died so far in clashes with pro-government supporters armed with knives, rocks, and electroshock sticks. Some anti-government demonstrators have been beaten by Yemeni security forces, according to the Washington Post and Human Rights Watch. The Post also noted that a member of parliament resigned yesterday, saying that the ruling party’s failure to fight corruption and its involvement in attacking peaceful demonstrators is “against my morals.”
U.S. response (Updated: 2/17, 11:30 am):
Salon noted over the weekend that the Obama administration hadn’t said anything in recent days about the violence in Yemen. In a briefing yesterday, asked specifically about the situation in Yemen, State Department spokesman PJ Crowley made a “broader statement” about the cause of the unrest in the region and noted that in Yemen, “you’ve got a clash of protestors who want change and protestors who want the status quo.”
Earlier this month, President Obama had called Yemen’s President Saleh and “asked that Yemeni security forces show restraint and refrain from violence” against demonstrators. He also urged Yemen to take forceful action against Al Qaida, according to the State Department.
Last week, Crowley also tweeted about the necessity of foreign aid to Yemen, saying that potential cuts would “constrain our ability to help Yemen” confront Al Qaeda.
Relationship status with U.S.: It’s complicated
As U.S. diplomatic cables show, relations between the U.S. and Algeria have warmed gradually in recent years. A February 2008 cable shows U.S. diplomats calling the Algerian military intelligence “a prickly, paranoid group to work with,” but noted that cooperation had paid dividends. A cable sent early last year noted Algeria’s strategic importance in the fight against al-Qaeda in the region.
According to the BBC, sporadic protests in Algeria have been continuing since early January, mostly triggered by economic conditions in the face of government wealth. Algerian security forces arrested dozens of protesters and police attacked some journalists in crackdowns over the weekend.
The State Department’s Crowley released a statement on Sunday:
We note the ongoing protests in Algeria, and call for restraint on the part of the security services. In addition, we reaffirm our support for the universal rights of the Algerian people, including assembly and expression. These rights apply on the internet. Moreover, these rights must be respected. We will continue to follow the situation closely in the days ahead.
Relationship status with United States: Enemies
The U.S. currently has sanctions against Iran and has long tried to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons.
What’s happening: Yesterday, members of the Iranian Parliament called for the leaders of the protest movement to be executed. The government has cracked down on the protests and worked to block coverage. Two protestors have been reported killed.
U.S. response: The U.S. response to Iran has been far harsher than to other governments suppressing protests. State Department spokesman PJ Crowley said on Monday that the U.S. condemned the violence “in the strongest terms”:
We are deeply concerned about reports that one person has been killed and two wounded in clashes with security forces. Those security forces are arresting, beating, and using tear gas against protestors, as well as blocking them from using public transportation, cell phones, and other means of communication. Iran reportedly continues to jam news coverage in the country. Both major opposition leaders remain under house arrest, and this is in conjunction with a wave of other arrests of opposition figures, including women’s rights advocates, leading up to the protests.
National Security Advisor Tom Donilon issued the following statement over the weekend:
By announcing that they will not allow opposition protests, the Iranian government has declared illegal for Iranians what it claimed was noble for Egyptians. We call on the government of Iran to allow the Iranian people the universal right to peacefully assemble, demonstrate and communicate that’s being exercised in Cairo.
Asked in a briefing this week about why the State Department is “condemning what is happening in Iran” and not taking the same position on crackdowns elsewhere, Crowley said, “Well, actually, in the other countries there is greater respect for the rights of the citizens. I mean, we are watching developments in other countries, including Yemen, including Algeria, including Bahrain. And our advice is the same.”
Relationship status with United States: Very close
What’s happening: Earlier this month, Jordan’s king sought to appease protestors by dismissing his cabinet. He swore in a new government last week—a mix of familiar faces and opposition leaders.
Seeking to ease those fears, President Obama called the king over the weekend and has dispatched a procession of top officials to Jordan to reassure him of Washington’s support. The emissaries included the State Department’s No. 3 official, William J. Burns, and the top U.S. military officer, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael G. Mullen.
U.S. concern over Jordan became apparent last month, when the administration abruptly increased its annual aid contribution of $363 million by an additional $100 million, targeted primarily at the country’s poor.
(Updated 2/17, 11:30 am)
Protests also broke out in the city of Benghazi in Libya on Wednesday as well as in one city in southern Iraq. Up to four protestors had been killed in Libya, according to the latest reports from local media and human rights groups. In Iraq, guards protecting government headquarters killed one demonstrator on Wednesday, the Post reported. Reuters has reported that three protesters have died there.
Asked on Wednesday about Libya and whether the country’s leader, Muammar el-Qaddafi, was a dictator, State Department spokesman Crowley commented generally on the regional unrest. Asked the same question again, Crowley said, “I don’t think he came to office through a democratic process.”