Middle East unrest: three Arab nations still facing unchartered waters

As the tumult of the Arab Spring turns to the uncertainty of the Arab Summer, three Arab leaders this week, in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria, passed milestones in their attempts to grapple with the historic upheavals that have convulsed the Middle East in the past six months.

Unidentified Syrian opposition activists chant in Antalya on June 1, 2011 during the opening session of a three-day meeting to discuss democratic change and voice support for a simmering revolt against President Bashar al-Assad's regime. Syrian opposition activists opened a conference in Turkey today to discuss ways of a regime change in their country after dissmissing the decree of a general amnesty as inadequate.  The three-day gathering began with more than 300 dissidents, mostly exiles representing various opposition factions and ethnic groups, at a hotel in the Mediterranean resort of Antalya. "Freedom, freedom" and "the people are united" the participants chanted.  AFP PHOTO / ADEM ALTAN
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Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa, with the lifting of a state of emergency only hours away, called for talks on reform involving all parties in the Gulf Arab state "without preconditions". Syria's President Bashar al Assad issued a general amnesty for political prisoners, the latest in a series of government attempts to assuage opposition to his 11-year rule and one that appeared to be timed to coincide with a meeting of his opponents in neighbouring Turkey. Finally, after rejecting for a third time a deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council to cede power, Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh cast aside carrot-and-stick tactics and deployed his security forces to crush protests in the southern city of Taiz after declaring open warfare with the leader of the country's most powerful tribe. With his rule secure, King Hamad does not have the same dilemma that faces Mr Saleh and Mr Assad - reform or share the fate of Tunisia's Ben Ali and Egypt's Mubarak. Nevertheless, all three are struggling mightily to navigate unchartered waters in their nations' histories and ride the wave of change.

BAHRAIN

After more than three months of upheaval in Bahrain, King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa spoke this week of the need for a "comprehensive, serious dialogue" with the opposition.

On the eve of the end of the kingdom's state of emergency, the Bahraini monarch said a national dialogue set for July would be held "without preconditions".

"Despite the fact that what has occurred recently in Bahrain has hurt us deeply, we remain determined to honour our commitments before Allah and our people," the king said on Tuesday.

Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al Khalifa, the crown prince, reiterated his father's pledge to continue a political reform programme that was launched a decade ago, saying that Bahrain was entering a "new chapter of reform".

"We are seeking to fairly balance out the need to maintain law and order with the desire for freedoms. This will require responsible actions on both sides," he said in a statement also issued on Tuesday. "Alongside this, the government will be seeking to address key areas where recent events have shown a need for investigation, accountability and change."

But, for many Bahrainis, promises of long-awaited reforms may ring hollow. The more conciliatory tone and commitment to a reform project that was started 10 years ago, comes amid a backdrop of growing polarisation in the kingdom following a brutal government crackdown on a Shiite-led pro-reform movement.

Since the start of largely peaceful demonstrations in mid-February, an estimated 30 people have been killed, mostly protesters, but also policemen. Hundreds of opposition figures and supporters have been arrested, and thousands reportedly dismissed from their jobs.

After the government moved to quash anti-government demonstrations in mid-March, a state of emergency brought curfews and checkpoints to parts of the country and prohibited protests. Bahraini troops backed by contingents from Saudi Arabia and the UAE were deployed across the island.

The military may now have been removed from the streets, but opposition activists are wary of what they say amounts to echoes of previous pledges to reform, without any substantive commitments yet from the government.

Adding to the uncertainty was a blunt warning issued by the Ministry of Justice on Tuesday that any group that tries to "harm the national peace and safety" would face consequences.

As Bahrainis cautiously start to take the streets once more, the reaction to any peaceful protests, as well as the course the government takes with the proposed national dialogue, will show how serious it is about moving forward and ending the crisis.

Meanwhile, dozens of opposition figures - including Ibrahim Sharif, the head of the liberal Waad party - remain in detention, facing trial in a military court. Muneera Fakhro, a prominent political figure and member of Waad, said there are still many unanswered questions. The most important is who the government plans to talk with.

"I think this is what we want - dialogue - but with whom? If leaders are still detained, who is going to lead the dialogue?" she said in a telephone interview from Bahrain. "I want to be optimistic, but I have to have grounds for this optimism."

YEMEN

SANA'A // Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh was on the verge of stepping down in March, one of his advisers said.

Seeing two powerful Arab leaders forced out of office made him panic. "He immediately met with his defence council and started preparing for the worst. He needed a miracle to stay in power and he got one," said Zaid Thari, a political adviser to Mr Saleh's ruling General Peoples Congress party.

The Gulf Co-operation Council transfer-of-power proposal, which was welcomed initially, provided Mr Saleh with a lifeline. "Yemen wanted a revolution like the one in Egypt," said Nabil Bukairi, director of Abaad Research Centre. "When Saleh was promised immunity by the GCC proposal, the Yemeni revolution was buried and new life was given to Saleh."

Since then, Mr Saleh has continued to warn Western powers and his Yemeni allies that the country will collapse into a failed state if he were to leave office.

Opposition leaders, in fact, say that Mr Saleh is causing the chaos throughout the country to prove his argument and remain in power.

"He started wars in Sana'a and six different areas in Yemen over the last two weeks, and this is only the beginning of his destructive strategy," said Hasan Zaid, general secretary of the opposition Haq Party.

Mr Zaid said that Mr Saleh is using the peacefulness of the Yemeni revolution to stay in power longer and that only the use of force will push him to resign. "Saleh does not respect his people and is willing to sacrifice thousands of lives for the sake of him staying in power," Mr Zaid said.

The United States fears that Yemen could become a safe haven for al Qa'eda. Mr Saleh has been a strong US ally in its fight against terror and has succeeded in making western powers believe that his opponents will not be sufficiently aggressive against al Qa'eda.

Opposition leaders are helping Mr Saleh prove his case by saying that al Qa'eda is not a threat.

The opposition Joint Meeting Parties said that al Qa'eda is funded mostly by Mr Saleh. "How can you expect the opposition to fight al Qa'eda if they do not agree that they are a threat to the country?" said Tareq Shami, a spokesperson for Mr Saleh.

"Mistakes of opposition leaders in critical international files has been key for Saleh staying in power over the last two months," Mr Shami said.

Mr Saleh said last week on Yemen TV that if he leaves office, several provinces will be overtaken by al Qa'eda. "The provinces of Abyan, Jawf, Mareb, and Shabwa will all be controlled by al Qa'eda fighters and this will cause chaos to the entire region," he said.

Last week, militants took control of the province of Abyan.

The opposition in Yemen is trying to convince the international community that the province was handed over to them by Mr Saleh.

"We are not surprised Abyan fell to militants," said Mohammed Qahtan, the spokesman for the JMP. "But these militants are Saleh's people. They work for Saleh and he is doing this to scare neighbouring countries."

SYRIA

DAMASCUS // With the Arab Spring washing violently across Syria, President Bashar al Assad and his inner circle are banking on a twin-track plan to keep control: promises of political reform and, simultaneously, an unblinking, aggressive crackdown on dissent.

This week both elements were firmly in play. On Tuesday, a general amnesty for prisoners was announced which, if enacted, will see thousands of political detainees freed, including members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

At the same time, military units - tanks, infantry and airborne assault forces - were dispatched to Syrian towns, adding a dozen extra fatalities to the 1,000-plus civilian deaths human-rights groups have counted since the uprising began in March.

The logic behind this apparently contradictory approach seems to depend on breaking those brave - or foolhardy - enough to openly stand against the government, while convincing the silent, acquiescent majority to at least stay on the sidelines.

But as protests head towards their fourth month, analysts and activists say there is little indication the plan is working. It may, in fact, simply be pouring fuel on the fire.

Even ostensibly concrete steps towards reform, including the historic act of lifting martial laws, have, if anything, further devalued the regime's word, its critics say.

More people are suffering at the hands of the security services now than when the state of emergency was in place and, even as pledges to release a generation of political prisoners were being made, more political detainees were being taken into custody.

In similar fashion, the ruling Baath party this week said a long-awaited, all-encompassing "national dialogue" would soon begin, only to then, in the next breath, refuse to even consider cancelling article eight of the constitution that guarantees it absolute control of Syria.

As reforms, they fall far short of what demonstrators are demanding: dismantling of the security apparatus, justice, transparency, accountability and an equal say for all in running the country.

These contradictions in policy - reform without change, conciliation with crackdown - reflect what analysts say is a conundrum at the very heart of Syria's system of autocratic government, and the central problem that faces Mr al Assad.

Implementing genuine political reforms means destroying Syria as a single party, dynastic police state. In effect, regime change with the regime's grudging consent.

Not implementing reforms means the legitimacy of Syria's authorities, already shaken through widespread use of force against their own people, will be further eroded. The regime may seize a military victory but, analysts say, it will likely prove to be pyrrhic. Opposition will grow, they warn, as the bloodshed and economic hardship spreads, resulting eventually, at some point, in regime change.

Mr Assad and his advisers clearly believe they can square that circle, and, with some of the deft manoeuvring Syria is renowned for in the foreign policy arena, will be able to remain in power with their

collective legitimacy intact.

Failing that, senior regime figures have made it clear if their promises for reform are not sufficient, their promise to fight to the end to retain power is the only alternative on offer.