Crisis in the Middle East

Misha Khan

On Dec. 17, 2010 a jobless Tunisian college graduate started selling vegetables. When police seized his cart, he set fire to himself and later died. The act followed a WikiLeaks’ publication of the U.S. criticisms of the strict regime, which provoked young Tunisians to protest. The protest marked the very beginning of the Arab Spring.

On Dec. 3, 2011 more than 25 people had been killed in Syria in further clashes between security forces and military defectors. The fighting came a day after the U.N.’s human rights chief called on the international community to protect Syrian civilians. Security forces also killed a civilian in the southern province of Deraa, six in the central region of Homs and three others in areas near Idlib, the activist group said.

It is fair to say that the Arab Spring has not died. Approximately 17 countries in the Middle East have faced or continue to face difficulties with protesters demanding changes in the governments of their respective lands. The 17 countries include Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

Conditions seem livable, tolerable and less serious in some countries. However, others remain in the throws of political conflict.

Bahrain rulers are now denying entry to foreign observers and preventing them from covering protests. Feb. 14 marked the one-year anniversary of the popular uprising against the Gulf island’s monarchy, and activists were again calling for nationwide protests to commemorate the date.

In January, Brian Dooley of the U.S.-based organization Human Rights First, was preparing for his fourth trip back to Bahrain since the uprising began in February 2011. Dooley told Al Jazeera that he had never previously had any problems entering the country.

“About a week before I was going, I got a letter saying: ‘Do not come,'” said Dooley in a report by Al-Jazeera.

Al Jazeera obtained a copy of the letter, sent by the Ministry of Human Rights, which asked Dooley to wait until after the end of February, by which time a national commission on implementing recommendations from the government-sponsored Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) would have finished its work.

When martial law began in mid-March of 2011, many local journalists were arrested or forced into exile, and most foreign journalists inside Bahrain were asked to leave. Since then the government has not had a consistent policy with granting visas, often offering media credentials valid for only a few days or denying entry altogether.

While denying entry into the country, Bahrain’s government is also going on the offensive by hiring western public relations firms to help polish its image abroad. Bahrain is not alone is seeking western public relations advice, but now it may be the only Arab nation still receiving it.

When government crackdowns on uprisings began in Tunisia and Libya, U.S.-based PR firms Washington Media Group and Monitor Company Group terminated contracts with their respective clients, and Egypt’s ruling military council that regularly used violence against protesters was ditched by its Washington lobbyists, the PLM Group, in January.

However, in Bahrain the PR companies have remained loyal. “Chan’ad Bahraini,” a popular blog focusing on Bahrain, has compiled a list of 10 PR firms hired by the Bahraini government since the crackdown began. Unlike their colleagues in Tunisia and Libya, none appear to have yet abandoned the government in Bahrain. Most of these firms seem D.C.-based and include Sorini, Samet & Associates, Qarvis, Joe Trippi & Associates and Sanitas International among others.

Foreign media may be temporarily out of the picture in Bahrain, but elsewhere in the Middle East protesters continue to tweet and upload pictures and videos of the danger they endure every day.

Violent clashes between Egyptian security forces and pro-democracy protesters continue in Cairo. Egyptians have been actively voicing their opinions via social media websites in order to keep everyone informed.

Security forces chased protesters through the streets to Tahrir Square, the centre of the uprising that toppled former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak earlier in 2011. Witnesses tweeted about soldiers and demonstrators hurling stones at each other.

One protester, Islam Mohammed, said he saw the army forces storming a field hospital held next to a mosque in Tahrir Square, lobbing medicine and equipment into the streets.

The state-run MENA news agency said about 300 people have been injured in two days of clashes.

Even Yemeni protesters continue to fight for change. Anti-government demonstrators say their revolution has been stolen by the political elite and tribal leaders.  The presidential election is was held on Feb. 21, but the winner was already known.

Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the only candidate in Tuesday’s election, is the vice-president of outgoing leader Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Despite the upcoming poll, anti-government protesters are not yet convinced that there will be genuine change in their country. There is an overwhelming sentiment among protesters that their revolution has been stolen by the political elite and tribal leaders.

Conditions have been worsening in the Syrian capital with incidents such as the firing of live ammunition and tear gas by Syrian security forces to break up a protest against President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, injuring several people.

The shooting in the Mazzeh neighbourhood on Saturday broke out at the funerals of three youths killed in a protest a day earlier.

Saturday’s demonstration, which activists said had thousands of participants as snow fell, was one of the biggest seen in and around the capital in months. The Local Coordination Committees (LCC) said two people had been killed, but the report could not be verified. The activist network said 12 others were killed elsewhere in the country.

Bloodshed and violence seem to be becoming everyday occurrences to the Middle East residents. Much smaller protests are breaking out in Saudi Arabia as well. Whether they will continue to expand or die out soon only time can tell. The Arab Spring does not seem to be slowing down anytime soon. With foreigners being banned, government-backed security forces opening fire at peaceful protesters, and cities going into lockdown mode, this Arab revolution may take up many more pages in the history books.