More protests in Yemen, Bahrain as populist empowerment grips the Middle East

Riot police in Bahrain's capital Manama have launched an early morning assault on anti-government protesters and retaken control of a central square. They fired tear gas and rubber bullets. The main opposition group says two protesters were killed. (Feb. 17)
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 17, 2011; 7:07 AM

SANAA, YEMEN - The wave of street clashes sweeping across the Middle East continued Thursday in Yemen and Bahrain, the latest sign that the tools of repression on which leaders in the region have relied in the past are now, instead, propelling more people to the streets.

In Bahrain, hundreds of police officers broke up a protest that had brought thousands to the heart of the country's financial district to demand sweeping political reforms. At least two people were reported killed. And in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, hundreds of pro- and anti-government protesters hurled rocks, swung at each other with sticks and burned tires and trash bins, chanting slogans all the while. It was the seventh straight day of protests in Yemen.

In Libya, protesters were planning to take to the streets for a "day of rage," according to anonymous activists posting on social networking Web sites, Reuters reported. But with rights groups warning of a possible crackdown by security forces, it was not clear if the demonstrations would materialize, the wire service said.

As populist rebellions have spread in the region--at least partly inspired by the revolts that succeeded in toppling longtime rulers in Egypt and Tunisia--it seems clear that a collective psychological realignment is underway.

Autocrats and monarchs across the Arab world have offered political concessions, including pledges to step down from power, to prevent chaos. But the offers have only emboldened the streets. Leaders have dispatched armed mobs and security forces to injure, arrest, even kill pro-democracy activists. But the next day, their critics return in even greater numbers, clamoring for action.

"We will not stop protesting until the corrupt regime changes," said Mohammed Ahmed, a union leader in Aden.

The new sense of empowerment has grown dramatically since Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down Friday. Activists have declared that if Egyptians could overthrow Mubarak, widely seen as the region's most influential and most stubborn autocrat, they could also oust their own unpopular governments. Others drew confidence from the refusal of the armies in Egypt and Tunisia to become tools of government repression, as well as from individual acts of courage.

At the same time, protesters are reassured by the Obama administration's public support for some of the pro-democracy movements. Many said they were re-energized by the U.S. decision not to prop up Mubarak's regime, despite his importance to U.S. strategic interests in the region.

"I am sure the United States will be on our side," said Tawakkol Karman, a well-known Yemeni activist. "The United States now knows it is on the right track by siding with the people, not their current regimes. In this way, the U.S. will regain the influence it has lost in the Arab world."

Governments have had some success in quelling the recent wave of demonstrators, most notably in Iran, where a heavy-handed response Monday appears to be kept many protesters home, at least for now.

In Bahrain, a pre-dawn raid and the declaration of a state of emergency Thursday cleared protesters from the central square in Manama, at least for a while. Authorities surrounded a makeshift encampment in Manama, the capital, before firing tear gas and ammunition.

They acted hours after some demonstrators called for the ouster of Bahrain's prime minister, a member of the royal family who has served for nearly 40 years, and even an end to the monarchy. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has offered condolences and promised reforms and an investigation into the violence, but his statements have not quelled the demonstrations.

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