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Arab Revolution: The Frustrated Wave of Uprisings

by on April 7, 2011

For three full months the revolutions across the Middle East have besieged both their domestic tyrants and the geo-political forces that have restrained the whole region for decades. What, at the fall of Mubarak, looked like a torrent of uprisings that would stop only when it ran out of dictators to topple is now a collection of struggles increasingly frustrated by repression, intervention and their current tactical limits.

In the case of Yemen, protesters have been valiantly mobilizing since January 20th against the 33-year rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh. By February, protesters had launched a sit-in at Sana’a University, in effect, making it their own Tahrir Square. Over a month and half into that sit-in, there they remain steadfast despite several brutal assaults, but so does Saleh remain in his presidential palace(s).

Bahrain’s own democracy movement that was launched on February 14th has also showed glorious determination, several times resisting brutal crackdowns only to face a regional conspiracy that brought soldiers from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries storming in to reinforce the monarchy. And again in Bahrain, protesters had a location to rally around, making Pearl Square their Tahrir Square.

There is great risk that the lesson learned from Egypt’s revolution is that it only takes a square occupation to bring down an entrenched autocrat. The occupation of Tahrir Square was one of multiple tactics fundamental to forcing Mubarak out of power. The replication of only one of these tactics has partly contributed to stalled revolutions across the region.

The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions utilized different sets of tactics but their shared success was in their ability to escalate and retaliate to the repression they encountered. When security forces loyal to Ben Ali carried out the vicious massacre of protesters in Kasserine, Tunisians responded with the Sfax general strike, mobilizing tens of thousands of people on January 12th, only to be followed up days later by the Tunis general strike on the 14th, the day Ben Ali went fleeing for the protection of Saudi patrons. Showing similar tactical proficiency, Egyptians also managed to punish the regime for its intransigence by launching sit-ins outside the presidential palace, state TV, and parliament, actions reinforced by waves of industrial action in critical sectors that combined to overpower Mubarak.

Bahrain’s revolution showed promise in retaliating against repressive measures ordered by the Khalifa dynasty. 90% of workers from Bahrain’s largest trade union federation voted to strike in March in response to attacks on protesters. However, the strike at the crucial Alba aluminum plant failed to affect operations as only “non-essential” staff participated in industrial action. Other decisive sectors like oil and petrochemical industries remained unaffected by the strike call, depriving the street protesters of the working class escalation invaluable in revolutions. Left unscathed by the strike call, the Khalifa regime has begun a systematic campaign targeting opponents within the working class.

There are early but positive signs that Yemen’s revolution is adapting and adjusting strategy specific to their situation. April 7th, the city of Taiz witnessed a general strike that reportedly choked the city, brining tens of thousands onto the street. This comes days after another general strike that shut down both Aden and Taiz. The challenge for Yemen is whether this mobilization can escalate in degree, length and extend to other major cities.

This maturation of industrial action in Yemen must not be delayed. The United States is now heavily involved in the political crisis, negotiating to see Vice President Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi lead the “transition”. But al-Hadi has been Vice President since 1994 and if he’s being pushed forward by the United States then he’s sure to be a continuation of Washington’s so-called stability centered foreign policy. The Americans have found their Omar Suleiman character to take over Yemen and sure enough, the Gulf Monarchies have become involved in executing this transition desired by the Obama administration.

Defense Secretary Gates visiting Saudi Arabia this week was no coincidence. Gates while there even said, without evidence, that Iran is meddling in Bahrain. The statement effectively serves to endorse the Saudi led GCC invasion of Bahrain while getting the House of Saud behind the “transition” outcome in Yemen desired by Washington.

But as the United States works furiously to set the agenda in Yemen, the Yemeni people have the chance to circumvent that agenda by removing Saleh and his accomplices by their own volition, a feat the Egyptian revolutionaries accomplished by removing both Mubarak and the Western anointed successor Suleiman. To do so will require Yemenis to repeat Taiz strike action across all cities,  to effectively deny Yemen’s political class an economy and the country to operate it.

I’ll be counting once more for the Arab Revolution, this time in Yemen, to surpass imagination and breakout of this frustrated cycle of repression and intervention. The Arab Spring must blossom once more.

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