Pro-democracy demonstrations stretched into a third day in Bahrain, while police and anti-regime protesters clashed in Yemen and Libya, the latest country in the region hit by demands for change.
Hundreds of Bahrainis gathered yesterday at the funeral of a demonstrator, who died in protests Feb. 15. They are demanding democracy and the ouster of Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, a member of the Sunni Muslim royal family who has held the post for four decades.
The dissent in Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, follows the toppling of autocratic rulers by popular movements in Egypt and Tunisia and marks the spread of unrest into the Persian Gulf, where most of the Middle East’s oil is produced. Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are key U.S. allies, and Yemen is supported by the Obama administration in a campaign against al-Qaeda.
“These movements are emboldening everybody who has grievances, whether they are a minority that wants to have equal rights or a majority that wants a functioning democracy,” Ebrahim Sharif, a Sunni who heads Bahrain’s National Democratic Action Society, said in an interview yesterday. “There is a feeling of people being empowered by these movements, that we are powerful. I think we are affecting even Iran.”
The spread of protests is taxing the Obama administration’s ability to adapt its policies in the region, said Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
Ottaway said she doubts that “the United States, once and for all, has decided to support protests” in Arab countries.
“I think it’s a decision that’s going to be made country by country, with a great deal of hesitation because the U.S. has a vested interest in maintaining of some of these leaders in power,” she said in an interview yesterday.
Persian Gulf shares tumbled, with Saudi Arabia’s index sliding the most this month, on concern the unrest may spread farther.
The Saudi Tadawul All Share Index declined 1.8 percent, while Qatar’s QE Index retreated 1.8 percent. The yield on the Bahraini government’s 5.5 percent dollar bond due 2020 increased 1 basis point to 6.43 percent, the highest on record, at 3:16 p.m. in the capital of Manama, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The cost of Bahrain credit-default swaps rose 7 basis points to 269 from the London close, according to CMA data.
In Yemen, where the government has cooperated with the U.S. in anti-terror efforts, hundreds rallied for a sixth day, marching outside Sanaa University to demand the immediate resignation of the president of 32 years, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Government supporters attacked them with electroshock batons. One person was killed during unrest in the city of Aden, Al Arabiya television reported.
In Libya, where Muammar Qaddafi has held power since leading a military coup in 1969, protesters demanding the government’s overthrow clashed with security forces in the port city of Benghazi, chanting “No God but Allah, Muammar is the enemy of Allah” and “Down to corruption and to the corrupt,” the Associated Press reported.
The official news agency, JANA, cited a statement from pro-Qaddafi demonstrators in which they pledged to defend him and said the protesters were “cowards and traitors,” AP said. State television said yesterday’s rally was among “popular demonstrations” in support of the Libyan leader.
Day of ‘Remembrance’
The leader of the opposition Front for the Salvation of Libya, Ibrahim Sahad, said in a video on the YouTube website that today would be a day of “remembrance and uprising” in the country and urged the group’s supporters to take part in protests to mark the event.
The unrest in Libya helped boost oil prices, with futures rising for the first time in four days. Oil for March delivery rose 60 cents, to $84.92 a barrel, at 9:09 a.m. on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
Libya has the largest proven oil reserves in Africa, with 44.3 billion barrels in 2009, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy. The North African nation pumped about 1.6 million barrels a day in January.
Anti-government protests inspired by the Arab revolts were put down on Feb. 14 in Shiite Muslim-led Iran, with which many Shiite Bahrainis retain cultural and family ties. Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main regional rival, has a Shiite minority in the Eastern Province, where most of its oil is produced.
Bahrain’s interior minister, Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa, apologized yesterday for the killing of two protesters in clashes with security forces this week, saying an investigation is under way, the official Bahrain News Agency said.
Shiites, who represent as much as 70 percent of the Bahraini population, say they face job and housing discrimination at the hands of the Sunni minority. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, the premier’s nephew, has ordered an increase in food subsidies and social welfare payments, and a grant of 1,000 dinars ($2,653) to each Bahraini family.
Bahrain’s government is prepared to discuss changes to the constitution demanded by the protesters only if the debate is held in parliament, the justice minister, Sheikh Khalid bin Ali al-Khalifa, told reporters yesterday.
“If you want any changes, it should be done within a constitutional process,” the minister said.
The U.S. has credited King Hamad, who ascended to the throne following the death of his father in 1999, with lifting repressive laws, allowing political debate, improving relations with the Shiite majority, and spurring economic development. “The result is that the Bahrain of today is a far cry from the Bahrain of the 1990s,” Ambassador Adam Ereli said in a classified Dec. 2009 embassy cable, which was made public yesterday by the WikiLeaks group.
In a Dec. 2008 cable, the king was reported to have told visiting General David Petraeus, who took over leadership of the U.S. Central Command in Oct. 2008, that Hezbollah, the radical Islamic group based in Lebanon, and Syria were trying to foment trouble in the Gulf kingdom, but that he had no definitive proof. In several cables, U.S. diplomats were skeptical that outsiders, including the allegation of Iranian efforts, were behind Shiite unrest.
The latest protests draw special interest from the U.S. because of Bahrain’s military connection.
“As a long-time ally and home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, Bahrain is an important partner and the Department is closely watching developments there,” Maj. Chris Perrine, a Defense Department, said yesterday. “We also call on all parties to exercise restraint and refrain from violence.”
Sharif said seven Bahraini opposition groups formed a committee to support the protests that began on Feb. 14. The demonstration they plan for Feb. 19 is expected to attract 50,000 marchers, making it the biggest ever in the kingdom, he said.
The committee, which includes al-Wefaq, the country’s largest Shiite group, will “provide support to the young people, help them organize and select leaders,” Sharif said.
The committee was formed late Feb. 15 and will hold its first meeting yesterday, he said. It will meet at least once a day to help coordinate the demonstrations and unify protesters’ demands, Sharif said.
Abdulnabi Alekry, chairman of the Bahrain Transparency Society, said the protests in Bahrain have no pro-Iran theme and aren’t a demand for Shiite rule in the kingdom, as was the case in the 1979 Iranian Revolution that brought clerics to power.
“This movement is completely different than the Iranian experience,” he said as he took part in yesterday’s funeral procession for the second man killed in the protests. “We want a genuine democracy, not clerical.”