Power’s Prophet: Remembering Gene Sharp

The Progressive February 1, 2018:
As a left-wing student activist in the 1970s, I parted with most of my comrades regarding their romanticization of armed revolution. Recognizing that pacifist arguments would be unconvincing—particularly in cases of those struggling against U.S.-backed dictatorships around the world—I came upon the writings of Gene Sharp, a Harvard University-based scholar who, through his study of centuries of nonviolent struggle, made a convincing case on utilitarian grounds that nonviolent struggle was a better means of resistance…

In Trump’s America, who’s protesting and why?

Washington Post April 24, 2017
   For March 2017, we tallied 585 protests, demonstrations, marches, sit-ins and rallies in the United States, with at least one in every state and the District. Our conservative guess is that 79,389 to 89,585 people showed up at these political gatherings, although it is likely that there were far more participants.
   Because mainstream media often neglect to report nonviolent actions — especially small ones — it is probable that we did not record every event that occurred. This is particularly true of the “A Day Without a Woman” strikes on March 8. It’s virtually impossible to record an accurate tally of participants for strikes, in part because many people deliberately conceal their motivations for skipping out on work or school when they participate. Nevertheless, we think our tally gives us a useful pool of information to better understand political mobilization in the United States (For our counting methods, please see our first post in the series.)

The Bipartisan Effort against Campaigns for Corporate Responsibility

The Progressive, Huffington Post & Common Dreams
The Trump Administration’s efforts to legitimize the Israeli occupation and illegal settlements in the Israeli-occupied territories has received surprising bipartisan support. A series of bills passed or under consideration in Washington and in state capitols seeks to punish companies, religious denominations, academic associations, and other entities which support the use of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) to challenge the occupation of Palestinian land…

Pro-Palestinian activism faces suppression on Catholic campuses

National Catholic Reporter March 7, 2017
At Marquette University last year, the Students for Justice chapter initially received administration approval to erect a large wooden barrier symbolizing Israel’s separation barrier in the West Bank. The barrier at Marquette included slogans and pictures from the actual wall illegally constructed in the occupied territory. The university quickly removed it, however, determining that the “nature of the content of the display” was “likely to cause great offense,” and declared that the Marquette administration “cannot approve the wall being displayed again.” [Other US Catholic universities suppressing activism include DePaul, St. Louis and Loyola.]

Fordham ban of Palestine group contradicts free speech, Jesuit values

National Catholic Reporter February 9, 2017
Perhaps it is a sign that we are indeed in the age of Trump when a Jesuit university bans a student organization with “justice” in its name.    Although Students for Justice in Palestine went through all the required procedures and obtained approval from the student government, Fordham University in New York has prohibited the group’s recognition as a student organization. The move raises serious concerns not only regarding Fordham’s commitment to justice, long a priority for Jesuit universities, but also regarding its students’ rights to free speech and association and the spirit of an open university that protects free inquiry.

Anti-war movement must listen to voices within Syria’s civil war

National Catholic Reporter October 10, 2016
   With the prospects of increased U.S. military involvement in Syria, peace activists have been mobilizing across the country. Recognizing the disastrous results of recent U.S. military interventions, the suspicions throughout the region regarding Washington’s motivations, and the lack of any major cohesive democratic armed force to support, there is a widespread understanding within the anti-war left that further militarization of the conflict would likely increase the suffering of the Syrian people.


Discerning Real from False Claims of Anti-Semitism in the Pro-Palestinian Movement

National Catholic Reporter & Huffington Post July 18, 2016
   As the U.S. movement in support of Palestinian rights gains momentum, it has come under increasing attack by supporters of Israel’s right-wing government and defenders of its occupation and colonization of occupied territory. For example, governors, state legislatures, and members of Congress of both major parties have referred to efforts to use such tactics as boycotts, divestment and sanctions in opposition of such policies as “anti-Semitic.” In many cases, such accusations can simply be dismissed as a kind of disingenuous McCarthyism designed to discredit peace and human rights activists, much as charges of “communism” were leveled in previous decades against those who opposed the Vietnam War and U.S. intervention in Central America. At the same time, as with charges of racism or sexism, there are some cases where such concerns should not be summarily dismissed…

Barker’s Bizarre Attacks against Progressive Scholars and Proponents of Nonviolent Resistance

The Real News Network January 15, 2014
Michael Barker, in an article posted on this site a few days ago, takes offense at my labeling him as someone “notorious” for “conspiracy-mongering.”  However, a careful reading of his article and its links actually reinforces that argument. At the outset, Barker questions my assertion that my colleagues and I are genuinely upset at the Stratfor revelations regarding Serbian nonviolent activist Srdja Popovic because he “is still included upon the advisory board of Waging Nonviolence…

Analysis of STRATFOR Leaks Misrepresents Nonviolent Movements

The Real News Network December 11, 2013
First published on WarIsACrime.org. Republished by In These Times, Medcom-Taiwan, Transcend.org
   Carl Gibson and Steve Horn have done an important service in writing their article outlining Srdja Popovic’s inexcusable collaboration with the global intelligence company STRATFOR and his disclosure of the activities of movements and activists with whom he has worked.  Unfortunately, as will be spelled out below, the article falls into a rather simplistic and reductionist analysis of Popovic’s motivations and, more critically, misrepresents the nature of the popular uprisings in Serbia and other countries. The article also contains a number of factual errors and misleading statements.

Attacks against anti-occupation activism increase

National Catholic Reporter July 22, 2013
[A version was also published by the Santa Cruz Sentinel July 12 as “California legislators attack UC anti-occupation activists.”]
   A growing movement has emerged on college campus calling for divestment from companies that support the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories that is part of broader international campaign initiated by Palestinian civil society for boycott, divestment and sanctions to pressure Israel to end its occupation of territories seized in the 1967 war.

Managing Repression (video)

International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (NonviolentConflict.org) Fletcher Summer Institute 2013: Managing Repression June 18 [Video]

Dr. Stephen Zunes, Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, emphasizes the international impact of repression, specifically how nonviolent responses in the face of brutal repression makes it easier to isolate the oppressive regime, whereas violent resistance, even where seemingly justifiable, could be seen as rationalizing further repression in the name of “national security” or “counter-terrorism.” He also addresses the importance of nonviolent discipline in encouraging defections by security forces and divisions within the regime.
Dr. Erica Chenoweth, Assistant Professor at the Josef Korbel School, University of Denver, discusses how repression affects nonviolent campaigns. She provides empirical evidence that nonviolent movements are still effective even against brutally oppressive opponents. She discusses how movements “manage” repression through the promotion of backfire, as well as the strategic options movements have in dealing with repression. She also provides evidence suggesting that nonviolent movements that adopt violence or develop armed wings are not usually advantaged relative to nonviolent movements. This is because using violence against the regime, even when provoked, can undermine the necessary public participation that nonviolent campaigns enjoy, and can also undermine the backfiring of regime repression.

The Arab Spring, Two Years Later (video)

March 12, 2013: DU Center for Middle East Studies Professor Stephen Zunes discusses the current state of the Arab world in the wake of the 2011 uprisings, the strength and successes of non-violent sociopolitical movements in the region, and the corresponding shifts now required of U.S. foreign policy. [YouTube link]

Occupy fizzled, but made 99% a force

CNN September 17, 2012|Updated Nov 18, 2012
[Republished by Huffington Post, Hartford Business, LittleGreenFootballs.com, Occupy Feeds,Transnational.org]
   It’s been a year since the Occupy Wall Street movement sprang up. Since then, it has fizzled, but this does not mean that the underlying issues that gave rise to the protests have gone away.
   Until last year, mainstream political discourse did not include nearly as much emphasis on such populist concerns as rising income inequality, tax policies that favor the rich, growing influence by large corporate interests in elections and the reckless deregulation of financial institutions that resulted in the 2008 crisis. It is hard to miss them now.
   These concerns still impact 99% of Americans. Even if Occupy protests have petered out, the movement has affected the political narrative in our country.

Unarmed resistance still Syria’s best hope

The Syrian pro-democracy struggle has been both an enormous tragedy and a powerful inspiration. Indeed, as someone who has studied mass nonviolent civil insurrections in dozens of countries in recent decades, I know of no people who have demonstrated such courage and tenacity in the face of such savage repression as have the people of Syria these past 10 months.

The resulting decline in the legitimacy of Bashar al-Assad’s government gives hope that the opposition will eventually win. The question is how many more lives will be lost until then.

While the repressive nature of regime has never been in question, many observers believed it would be smarter and more nuanced in its reaction when the protests of the Arab Spring first came to Syria in March. Indeed, had the government responded to the initial demonstrations like those of Morocco and neighboring Jordan with genuine (if relatively minor) reforms and more subtle means of crowd control, the pro-democracy struggle would have probably faded rather quickly.

Instead, the regime has responded with live ammunition against overwhelmingly nonviolent demonstrators and with widespread torture and abuse of detainees, even as the protests spread to every major region of the country. The death toll as of this writing now stands at more than 5,000.

Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, where the opposition was relatively united and was able to take advantage of divisions within the ruling circles, the elites in Syria have been united against a divided opposition. Decades of human rights abuses, sectarian divisions, suppression of independent civil society institutions, ubiquitous secret police, and an overall culture of fear have made it difficult to build a unified opposition movement. Furthermore, the Israeli occupation of the southwestern region of the country, foreign invasions and occupations of neighboring Lebanon and Iraq, and periodic threats by Turkey, Israel and the United States have allowed the nationalistic regime to further solidify its control.

Another difference is that Assad is not a singular ruler, but part of a powerful oligarchy composed of top military officers, wealthy businessmen, Baath Party officials and others. Dictatorships that rest primarily on the power of just one man are generally more vulnerable in the face of popular revolt than are oligarchical systems where a broader network of elite interests has a stake in the system.

Syria has not had much experience in democracy. Its brief democratic period following independence was aborted by a CIA-supported coup in 1949. Following two decades of coups, countercoups, a brief union with Egypt, and chronic political instability, Defense Minister Hafez al-Assad seized power in 1970 and ruled until his death in 2000. Despite that the republican Baath movement was founded in large part on opposition to dynastic succession so common in the Arab world, Assad was succeeded by his son Bashar. The younger Assad, while allowing for an initial wave of liberalization upon first coming to power, soon cracked down on dissent. Indeed, the only liberalization subsequently has been on the economic front, and that has primarily benefited only a minority of Syrians and greatly increased social inequality.

Though nominally a secular regime, the top sectors of the government and armed forces are controlled by Alawites (members of an Islamic sect similar to the Shiites) who are concentrated along Syria’s northwestern coast — home of the Assad clan — and represent barely 12 percent of the country’s population. Stoking fears of a takeover by hard-line elements of Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority in the event of its overthrow, the regime still has a fair amount of support among the country’s Christians (representing around 10 percent of the population) and other minorities, as well as secular elements and powerful business interests.

In reality, the opposition’s goals are economic justice and political freedom, not the establishment of a Salafi Sunni theocracy, as the regime claims.

Despite the ruling Baath Party’s nominally socialist ideology, the uprising in Syria has a much stronger working-class base than most of the other Arab uprisings. The vast majority of the opposition rejects foreign intervention, recognizing that it would likely result in strengthening support for the nationalist regime and open the way for inordinate Western influence in a post-Assad system.

Despite enormous provocations, the uprising — which has brought millions of people out into the streets in scores of towns and cities across the country — has been overwhelmingly nonviolent. Hundreds of soldiers have been executed for refusing orders to fire on unarmed demonstrators. Thousands more have defected from the armed forces, forming the “Free Syrian Army,” which has engaged in a series of firefights with forces still loyal to the regime, leading to fears that the country could descend into a civil war.

This would likely harm the pro-democracy movement. Recent history has shown that armed struggles are far less likely to be successful than nonviolent struggles, even against dictatorships, since it lessens the likelihood of defections by security forces and government officials, reduces the numbers of active participants in the movement, alienates potential supporters, and gives the regime the excuse to crack down even harder by portraying the opposition as “terrorists.”

The best hope for Syria is that continued protests, strikes and other forms of nonviolent resistance, combined with targeted international sanctions, will cause enough disruption that powerful economic interests and other key sectors currently allied with the regime would force the government to negotiate with the opposition for a transfer of power to a democratic majority. Indeed, this is the scenario that eventually forced an end to another notorious minority regime, that of South Africa.

Protesters persist despite crackdown

Of the popular pro-democracy civil insurrections that have swept the Middle East over the past year, none were as large — relative to the size of the country — as the one that took place in the island kingdom of Bahrain. And while scattered resistance continues, none were so thoroughly suppressed.

The crackdown against the overwhelmingly nonviolent pro-democracy struggle launched in mid-February was brutal. More 40 people have been killed, including a number in custody, and more than 1,600 have been arrested. Those targeted were not just human rights activists, but journalists who covered the protests and medical personnel who treated victims. In October, a military court sentenced 20 doctors and nurses to up to 15 years in jail for assisting the wounded.

More than 2,500 people have been dismissed from their jobs for supporting the freedom movement and more than 40 mosques and religious sites deemed to have links to pro-democracy activists were destroyed. Human Rights Watch reports, “Leading political opposition figures, human rights defenders and civil society activists have been sentenced to unduly long prison terms, in some cases for life, solely for their role in organizing the large street protests; their trial record does not link them in any way to acts of violence or any other recognizable criminal offense.”
When the Bahraini regime proved incapable of suppressing the popular nonviolent uprising on its own, U.S.-armed Saudi forces, supplemented by smaller units from the nearby emirates, invaded the country March 14 via the causeway separating the island from the mainland.

On Nov. 22, the government-appointed Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry released a report that was surprisingly frank in acknowledging many of the regime’s abuses. The day after the report was issued, however, security forces launched a new round of repression against the now smaller but still persistent protests.

It is not surprising that the pro-democracy struggle has been so much stronger in Bahrain than in the other Arab Gulf states. Its traditional role as a leading trading center reinforced traditions of cosmopolitanism, tolerance and pluralism. A visit to the island today reveals not only Sunni and Shiite mosques, but Christian churches, Hindu and Sikh temples and even a synagogue. Bahrain was also the first Arab country in the Gulf to provide formal modern education to women. Even prior to the discovery of oil, the economy based on fishing, pearl diving and trade allowed for the development of a largely urban society with an indigenous middle class, thereby avoiding the parochial tribalism of other Arabian countries.

Though the protesters have represented a broad cross section of society, the Sunni royal family and its supporters have tried to depict the struggle for democracy as a sectarian conflict by radical Shiites tied to Iran. The majority of pro-democracy activists are indeed Shiite, because more than three-quarters of Bahrainis are of the Shiite tradition and have long been discriminated against by the Sunni-controlled Bahraini government in employment, housing and infrastructure. The military, particularly top officers, is mostly made up of Sunnis and the secret police are almost exclusively Sunni. Only a handful of cabinet posts, restricted to the less important ministries, have been granted to Shiites, with the most important positions held by members of the royal family.

Such discrimination, however, is but one aspect of the monarchy’s authoritarian rule that the Bahrainis are challenging. Indeed, the protests in Bahrain are as legitimate a pro-democracy movement as the popular struggles in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria, and they have had the support of progressive Sunni and secular elements. Signs and chants at the demonstrations have eschewed sectarianism, emphasizing Shiite-Sunni unity in the cause of democracy. Having been conquered by the Persian Empire for periods of their history, the Arab Bahrainis cherish their independence. In addition, the opposition movement has expressed its solidarity with the ongoing pro-democracy struggle against the Iranian-backed Syrian regime.

That hasn’t stopped some Obama administration officials from denouncing alleged Iranian meddling in Bahraini affairs while refusing to criticize the Saudi invasion and repression.

The United States has long been a major supporter of Bahrain’s autocratic monarchy, which hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. While President Barack Obama has expressed his concern about the repression and has called for the government to dialogue with the opposition, his language has been restrained compared with his criticisms of the Assad regime in Syria and other repressive governments with which the United States does not have such close relations.

In October, the administration announced a new $53 million arms sale to Bahrain, including 44 armed Humvees that could be important instruments in suppressing street protests. The Pentagon, in defending the arms transfer, praised the authoritarian government as “an important force for political stability and economic progress in the Middle East.”
Fortunately, a broad coalition of 29 peace, human rights and religious organizations mobilized against the arms sale and a number of prominent congressional Democrats raised concerns as well. The following month, in the face of mounting objections, the Obama administration announced an indefinite delay in the sale.

This serves as a reminder that for the cause of freedom and democracy to advance in the Arab world, the struggle cannot just take place in the Middle East, but here in the United States as well.

Washington Okays Attack on Unarmed U.S. Ship

The Obama administration appears to have given a green light to an Israeli attack on an unarmed flotilla carrying peace and human rights activists — including a vessel with 50 Americans on board — bound for the besieged Gaza Strip. At a press conference on June 24, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized the flotilla organized by the Free Gaza Campaign by saying it would “provoke actions by entering into Israeli waters and creating a situation in which the Israelis have the right to defend themselves.”

Clinton did not explain why a country had “the right to defend themselves” against ships which are clearly no threat. Not only have organizers of the flotilla gone to great steps to ensure are there no weapons on board, the only cargo bound for Gaza on the U.S. ship are letters of solidarity to the Palestinians in that besieged enclave who have suffered under devastating Israeli bombardments, a crippling blockade, and a right-wing Islamist government. Nor did Clinton explain why the State Department suddenly considers the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of the port of Gaza to be “Israeli waters,” when the entire international community recognizes Israeli territorial waters as being well to the northeast of the ships’ intended route.

The risk of an Israeli attack on the flotilla is real. Israeli commandoes illegally assaulted a similar flotilla in international waters on May 31 of last year, killing nine people on board one of the vessels, including Furkan Dogan, a 19-year old U.S. citizen. Scores of others, including a number of Americans, were brutally beaten and more than a dozen others were shot but survived their wounds. According to a UN investigation, based on eyewitness testimony and analysis by a forensic pathologist and ballistic expert, Dogan was initially shot while filming the assault and then murdered while lying face down with a bullet shot at close range in the back of the head. The United States was the only one of the 47 members of the UN Human Rights Council to vote against the adoption of the report. The Obama administration never filed a complaint with the Israeli government, demonstrating its willingness to allow the armed forces of U.S. allies to murder U.S. citizens on the high seas.

As indicated by Clinton’s statement of last week, the administration appears to be willing to let it happen again.

Congressional Response

Last year, 329 out of 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives signed a letter that referred to Israel’s attack that killed Dogan and the others as an act of “self-defense” which they “strongly support.” A Senate letter — signed by 87 out of 100 senators — went on record “fully” supporting what it called “Israel’s right to self-defense,” claiming that the effort to relieve critical shortages of food and medicine in the besieged Gaza Strip was simply part of a “clever tactical and diplomatic ploy” by “Israel’s opponents” to “challenge its international standing.”

But not everyone in Congress believes the assaulting and killing human rights activists on the high seas is legitimate. Last week, on June 24, six members of Congress signed a letter to Secretary Clinton requesting that she “do everything in her power to work with the Israeli government to ensure the safety of the U.S. citizens on board.” As of this writing, they have not received a response.

Earlier in the week, the State Department issued a public statement to discourage Americans from taking part in the second Gaza flotilla because they might be attacked by Israeli forces. Yet thus far neither the State Department nor the White House has issued a public statement demanding that Israel not attack Americans legally traveling in international waters. Indeed, on Friday, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland implied that the United States would blame those taking part in the flotilla rather than the rightist Israeli government should anything happen to them. Like those in the early 1960s who claimed civil rights protesters were responsible for the attacks by white racist mobs because they had “provoked them,” Nuland stated, “Groups that seek to break Israel’s maritime blockade of Gaza are taking irresponsible and provocative actions that risk the safety of their passengers.” Again, The Obama administration didn’t offer even one word encouraging caution or restraint by the Israeli government, nor did it mention that the International Red Cross and other advocates of international humanitarian law recognize that the Israeli blockade is illegal.

Who’s On Board

Passengers of the U.S. boat, christened The Audacity of Hope, include celebrated novelist Alice Walker, holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein, former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, veteran foreign service officer and retired lieutenant colonel Ann Wright, Israeli-American linguistics professor Hagit Borer, and prominent peace and human rights activists like Medea Benjamin, Robert Naiman, Steve Fake, and Kathy Kelly. Ten other boats are carrying hundreds of other civilians from dozens of other countries, along with nearly three thousand tons of aid. Those on board include members of national parliaments and other prominent political figures, writers, artists, clergy from various faith traditions, journalists, and athletes.

Fifteen ships have previously sailed or attempted to sail to Gaza as part of the Free Gaza Campaign. None was found to contain any weapons or materials that could be used for military purposes. The current flotilla organizers have stated that their cargoes are “open to international inspection.” Despite this, however, the Obama State Department insists that the Israelis have the right to intercept the ships due to the “vital importance to Israel’s security of ensuring that all cargo bound for Gaza is appropriately screened for illegal arms and dual-use materials.”

Though the flotilla organizers have made clear that the U.S. boat is only carrying letters of support for the people of Gaza, the State Department has also threatened participants with “fines and incarceration” if they attempt to provide “material support or other resources to or for the benefit of a designated foreign terrorist organization, such as Hamas.”

As with many actions supporting Palestinian rights, the coalition of groups endorsing the flotilla includes pro-Palestinian groups as well as peace, human rights, religious, pacifist and liberal organizations, including Progressive Democrats of America, Pax Christi, Peace Action, Nonviolence International, Jewish Voice for Peace, War Resisters League, and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Despite this, Brad Sherman (D-CA), ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Relations Committee’s subcommittee on terrorism, nonproliferation and trade, has claimed that organizers of the flotilla have “clear terrorist ties” and has called upon U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to prosecute U.S. citizens involved with the flotilla and ban foreign participants from ever entering the United States.

Israel’s Position

Largely as a result of last year’s flotilla, Israel has somewhat relaxed its draconian siege on the territory, which had resulted in a major public health crisis. The State Department has gone to some lengths to praise Israel for allowing some construction material into the Gaza Strip to make possible the rebuilding of some of the thousands of homes, businesses and public facilities destroyed in Israel’s devastating U.S.-backed 2008-2009 military offensive, which resulted in the deaths of over 800 civilians. At no point, however, has the Obama administration ever criticized Israel for destroying those civilian structures in the first place.

As with many potentially confrontational nonviolent direct actions, there are genuine differences within the peace and human rights community regarding the timing, the nature, and other aspects of the forthcoming flotilla. However, the response to the Obama administration’s position on the flotilla has been overwhelmingly negative. Many among his progressive base, already disappointed at his failure to take a tougher line against the rightist Israeli government as well as his reluctance to embrace human rights and international law as a basis for Israeli-Palestinian peace, feel increasingly alienated from the president.

More significantly, the Obama administration’s response may signal a return to the Reagan administration’s policies of defending the killing of U.S. human rights workers in order to discourage grassroots acts of international solidarity, as when Reagan officials sought to blame the victims and exonerate the perpetrators for the murder of four American churchwomen by the El Salvadoran junta and the murder of American engineer Ben Linder by the Nicaraguan Contras. Perhaps the Obama administration hopes that giving a green light to an Israeli attack on the U.S. ship and other vessels in the flotilla will serve as a warning. Perhaps they hope that Americans volunteering for groups like Peace Brigades International, Witness for Peace, Nonviolent Peaceforce, Christian Peacemaker Teams, International Solidarity Movement, and other groups operating in conflict zones like Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala, El Salvador, Sri Lanka, Palestine, Nepal, Indonesia and elsewhere will think twice, knowing that the U.S. government will not live up to its obligations to try to protect nonviolent U.S. activists from violence perpetrated by allied governments.

Indeed, nothing frightens a militaristic state more than the power of nonviolent action.


Pro-Democracy Protests Spread to Oman

Most Americans are not familiar with the sultanate of Oman. The mostly desert country the size of Kansas wraps around the Arabian peninsula’s southeastern corner, bordering Yemen on its southwest and the empty quarter of Saudi Arabia along most of its inland border. Oman’s long seacoast runs along the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. And its northern tip forms one side of the strategically important Strait of Hormuz across from Iran.

Oman’s autocratic monarchy has long been one of the closest U.S. allies in the Middle East. And, as with authoritarian U.S. allies in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Yemen, a largely nonviolent, pro-democracy struggle has arisen in Oman as well.

Protests began in the capital of Muscat on February 19 but soon spread to other cities across the country. Similar to the other largely nonviolent insurrections taking place elsewhere in the Arab world, the protests have been centered on demands for democracy, human rights, economic justice, and curbing official corruption. As in Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, and other monarchies that have witnessed protests in recent weeks, most protesters are not demanding the abolition of the monarchy. They’re seeking an elected parliament with real power, essentially transforming the current absolute monarchy into a constitutional monarchy.

On February 26, protests in Oman spread to the northeastern industrial city of Sohar. Although starting out exclusively nonviolent, a forcible response by government security forces the following day resulted in some stone-throwing by the crowd. A police station and government building were reportedly torched. Security forces killed two protesters and wounded several others. On Monday, protesters temporarily blocked roads leading to the country’s second largest port and new protests broke out in the capital. Meanwhile, in the southern city of Salalah, demonstrators began a sit-in near the office of a provincial governor. In response, the sultan replaced nine cabinet members, raised the minimum wage by 40 percent, and announced his intention to create 50,000 new civil service jobs. These measures did not satisfy the pro-democracy protesters. On March 3, demonstrators set up a tent city in the center of Sohar. Two days later, protests hit Oman’s oil producing region. Workers at the main oil field at Haima began an ongoing sit-in.

The Obama administration has thus far refused to support the protesters demands or call for a democratic opening. But State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said that U.S. officials had contacted the Omani government and encouraged them “to undertake reforms that include economic opportunity and move towards greater inclusion and participation in a peaceful political process.”

Our Man in Muscat

Oman’s ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, is well-regarded in the West. An Anglophile (trained at Sandhurst) and a cultured man with musical talents, he has long been depicted as a “moderate” Arab leader. He has ruled Oman since 1970 when he overthrew his father, Sultan Said bin Taimur, who had effectively banned almost all aspects of 20th-century development.

The sultan serves as both head of state and head of government, as well as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, prime minister, defense minister, foreign affairs minister, and finance minister. There is no crown prince or other major figures in the royal family to either serve as a counterweight or to back up his rule. Nor is there a legal process currently in place for selecting a successor. There is no heir apparent, nor is there likely to be one. Qaboos is 70 years old, has no children, and is unmarried. (He is known to have a harem of at least 100 men, though they generally keep a low public profile.)

Although Oman’s oil reserves are significantly less than its richer neighbors to the north, in recent years they have provided the country with impressive economic growth. However, that does not substitute for the lack of political freedom. Qaboos refuses to allow any group to meet without official permission, and all NGOs must be licensed by his regime. There is severe press censorship, there are no political parties or independent human rights groups, and it is strictly forbidden to criticize the ruler. The sultan established an 84-member quasi-parliamentary body known as the Majlis Shura in 2002, which has no legislative authority and only serves in an advisory capacity.

Despite such limitations, pro-democracy activists have sought creative means of spreading their message, such as using donkeys as mobile billboards to criticize the regime. Such efforts had little impact. The events of the past two weeks are the first time the regime has faced a serious challenge to its autocratic rule.

Economic and Strategic Ties

Oman is also the location of one of the lesser-known U.S. military interventions. In the late 1960s, a popular leftist uprising composed primarily of peasants from the southwestern province of Dhofar as well as participants from other parts of the country began challenging the regime. In response, in the early 1970s, the United States and the British helped coordinate a counter-insurgency war with the support of troops from Pakistan and Iran, which was then under the rule of the Shah. This strategy of finding regional surrogates to intervene in counterrevolutionary warfare rather than dispatching U.S. forces to do the actual fighting came to be seen as the most marked success of the Nixon Doctrine. The Omani government, with this outside assistance, crushed the leftist rebellion by 1976. Ties between the United States and Oman have been close ever since.

In the years between the overthrow of the Shah in early 1979 and Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait (which led to an opening for U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia and other emirates further north), Oman was the country in the Persian Gulf that most welcomed U.S. forces. In subsequent years, the availability of Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait for U.S. forces has limited Oman’s role to providing air bases for refueling, logistics, and storage. Despite its friendly relations with the United States, Oman has maintained better relations with Iran than other Arab countries of the Gulf and has thereby served at times as an intermediary.

Oman’s total population is around 2.5 million. But approximately 600,000 of them are guest workers from the Philippines, Egypt, and South Asia, who serve as maids, drivers, and construction workers. The U.S. State Department has noted that abuses of foreign workers and even human trafficking are commonplace. Despite this, Congress approved a free trade agreement with Oman in 2006, which appears to have boosted the fortune of the sweatshop owners rather than the earnings of either Omani or foreign workers.

As with other allied autocracies in the region, Oman’s human rights record has been something of an embarrassment. Under the Clinton administration, the authors of the State Department annual human rights report, as a result of pressure from department superiors, changed the description of the Sultanate of Oman to downplay the authoritarian nature of the regime. Although the 1991 report described Oman as “an absolute monarchy,” subsequent reports simply referred to the sultanate as “a monarchy without popularly elected representative institutions.” The sultan’s speeches, justifying his country’s lack of democracy as a reflection of its cultural traditions, have been first written in English by Western advisers and then translated into Arabic.

Although most Americans may not be familiar with Oman, Omanis are certainly familiar with the United States and its support for the sultan. The growing unrest will make it difficult for the United States to remain silent about the severity of the country’s problems. Oman is yet one more test of whether the Obama administration will continue to back an autocratic status quo in allied Arab countries or respect the wishes of their people, manifested through large-scale nonviolent action.

America Blows It on Bahrain

The Obama administration’s continued support of the autocratic monarchy in Bahrain, in the face of massive pro-democracy demonstrators, once again puts the United States behind the curve of the new political realities in the Middle East. For more than two weeks, a nonviolent sit-in and encampment by tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters has occupied the Pearl Roundabout. This traffic circle in Bahrain’s capital city of Manama – like Tahrir Square in Cairo – has long been the symbolic center of the city and, by extension, the center of the country. Though these demonstrations and scores of others across the country have been overwhelmingly nonviolent, they have been met by severe repression by the U.S.-backed monarchy.

Understanding the pro-democracy struggle unfolding in this tiny island nation requires putting into context the country’s unique history, demographics, and its historically close relations to the United States.

Though Bahrain has a long and rich history, the modern state did not receive full independence from Great Britain until 1971. This is the same year the British withdrew their security commitments from the area and the United States stepped in as the major foreign power. Bahrain is the smallest country in the Middle East, located on an island of only 290 square miles (smaller in area than New York City) in the Persian Gulf between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Its population is only 1.2 million (smaller than San Antonio, Texas). More than half of that total consists of foreign guest workers, primarily from India and other South Asian countries. The small size of the country belies its perceived importance by the U.S. government.

The Ties that Bind

The fortress-like U.S. embassy in Manama is probably the largest embassy relative to the population of the host country of any in the world. The U.S. military in Bahrain, which directs the Fifth Fleet and the U.S. Naval Central Command, controls roughly one-fifth of this small nation, making the southern part of the island essentially off-limits to Bahrainis. For more than 20 years, approximately 1,500 Americans have been stationed at the base (which the U.S. government refers to as a “forward operations center”), supporting operations and serving as homeport for an additional 15,000 sailors. As University of California–Irvine Professor Mark LeVine describes it, “If the United States is Egypt’s primary patron, in Bahrain it is among the ruling family’s biggest tenants.” Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral William Crowe once told me in an interview that Bahrain was “pound for pound, man for man, the best ally the United States has anywhere in the world.”

Unlike in other Gulf states, where Americans have traditionally kept a low profile, the U.S. presence is quite visible in Bahrain as a major port of call for sailors on leave. Just prior to my last visit, the government threw a big Christmas party for American military personnel, even bringing in Santa Claus riding on a camel. This is made possible thanks to its U.S.-friendly dictator, King Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa. The prime minister is Prince Khalifa ibn Salman Al Khalifa, the king’s uncle and reputedly the richest man in the Bahrain, who has governed for nearly 40 years. Both are firmly committed to a close strategic alliance with the United States. And close economic ties as well.

Indeed, economic interests also draw the two nations together. Bahrain was the first Arab country to produce oil back in 1932. Standard Oil of California (now Chevron), later joined by Texaco, succeeded in controlling the country’s oil industry through ownership of the Bahrain Petroleum Company, until the Bahraini government purchased the company in 1980. In 2005, Bahrain became the first Persian Gulf state to sign a free trade agreement with the United States. The government has embarked upon a massive privatization program in recent years–selling banks, financial services, telecommunication, and other public assets to private interests. The Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal Index of Economic Freedom ranks Bahrain as having the “freest” economy in the Middle East and the tenth “freest” in the world.


Most Bahrainis are not happy with such policies. But Bahrain’s political system doesn’t allow them to do much about it. Even the State Department acknowledges that the Bahraini government “restricts civil liberties, freedoms of press, speech, assembly, association, and some religious practices.”

As far back as the 1990s, Bahraini officials with whom I met were beginning to sense that greater attention needed to be paid to human rights and economic justice. At that time, the United States did not appear to push them in that direction. “An overemphasis on profitability for corporations at the expense of other more basic concerns could lead to political instability,” said Mohammed Ali Fakhro, Bahrain’s minister of education, in all-too prescient remarks. “If there is going to be stability, there needs to be greater fairness in the distribution of wealth, both between the North and the South, but also within countries, including the United States.” He, and other Bahraini officials I interviewed at that time, stressed that the United States needed to be more consistent with its professed concerns about human rights, that American policymakers often compromised on these principles when they conflicted with short-term interests. Democratization is sweeping the world, they observed, including in the Middle East. In their view, it would be in the interest of regional stability for the United States to play a role as catalyst of change rather than simply as an armed power.

The 1990s saw periodic and widespread protests throughout Bahrain, including scattered acts of violence, against the authoritarian Sheik Issa. When Issa died in 1999, his son and successor King Hamad announced a series of major reforms. Approval of the National Action Charter of Bahrain, codified in a 2001 referendum, ended more than seven years of protests against the regime. While Bahrainis did enjoy a somewhat more liberal social and political environment under their new ruler, most promised reforms never materialized. For example, the charter allowed for the establishment of an elected lower house of parliament, but it has remained largely powerless. The upper house – appointed by the king – must approve any legislation passed by the lower house. Furthermore, the king can still veto any legislation with no option of override and can abolish the entire parliament at will. All of the important cabinet posts – and majority of the cabinet posts overall – are filled by members of the royal family.

While Bahrain permits greater freedom of speech than in many neighboring countries, criticism of the royal family – which applies to the government and most of its ministries – is significantly restricted. Similarly, laws against fomenting “sectarianism” have been broadly applied. This comes as no surprise, given that the royal family is Sunni and most opposition groups are based in the majority Shia community.

Several political forces boycotted the October 2010 parliamentary elections, including the main opposition party Haq Movement for Liberty and Democracy (which includes both Shia and Sunni leadership) as well as the Wafa Party, the Bahrain Freedom Movement, the Khalas Movement, and the Islamic Action Society. Just prior to the vote, the authorities arrested a number of opposition leaders after they raised concerns about human rights abuses.

A Popular Progressive Tradition

The authoritarianism of the Bahraini government contrasts with the island’s relatively progressive and pluralistic tradition. Despite many years under monarchies and empires, Bahrainis have long embraced a tradition of freedom and social justice. During most of the 10th and 11th centuries, an Islamic sect known as the Qarmatians governed the island and created a radically egalitarian society based on reason and the equal distribution of all wealth and property among the adherents. In the 19th century, Bahrain was the largest trading center in the entire Gulf region – with Arab, Persian, Indian, and other influences – reinforcing traditions of cosmopolitanism, tolerance, and pluralism.

A visit to Manama today reveals not only Sunni and Shia mosques, but Christian churches, Hindu and Sikh temples, and a Jewish synagogue. Bahrain was the first Arab country in the Gulf to provide formal modern education to women. With an economy traditionally based on fishing, pearl diving, and trade – and with too little land for much grazing or fresh water for farming – Bahrain has been a largely urban society for centuries, even prior to the discovery of oil. Thus, it has never been subjected to the kind of parochial tribalism of other Arabian countries. Furthermore, unlike the other oil-rich sheikdoms of the Gulf region, the diverse sources of its wealth have led to the establishment of an indigenous middle class.

Though an island, Bahrain is accessible by road. A 16-mile causeway connects it to Saudi Arabia. Indeed, Bahrain’s relatively liberal social mores have made it a residence of choice for Saudis who wish to live in a less restrictive environment. It’s also become a popular weekend destination for Saudis who want to party.

Although Bahrain’s oil supplies are running out, it still serves as a major refinery center. It still has plenty of natural gas reserves and has become a major financial center. Ship repair, aluminum refining, and light manufacturing have also helped diversify the economy. With an annual per capita income of $26,000 (similar to Greece), low unemployment, a literacy rate over 90 percent, and an average life expectancy and infant mortality rate comparable to some European countries, it is one of the better-off nations in the Middle East. Still, impressive social and economic statistics are no substitute for political freedom, particularly when combined with ongoing discrimination against the Shia majority.

The Nonviolent Struggle

Inspired by pro-democracy uprisings in Tunisia and Iran, pro-democracy activists called for nationwide pro-democracy protests on February 14, the tenth anniversary of the National Action Charter referendum. The mostly young organizers called on Bahrainis “to take to the streets on Monday 14 February in a peaceful and orderly manner” in order to rewrite the constitution and establish a body with a “full popular mandate to investigate and hold to account economic, political and social violations, including stolen public wealth, political naturalisation, arrests, torture, and other oppressive security measures, [and] institutional and economic corruption.”

According to the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), the government’s response was “a state of confusion, apprehension and anticipation,” including an attempt to placate the opposition with money. The king ordered that 1000 Bahrani dinars (approximately $2,600) be distributed to each family in celebration of the referendum’s tenth anniversary.

On February 12, the BCHR sent an open letter to the king to “ease tensions” and “avoid the use of force” by releasing 450 detainees, dissolving the security apparatus, and prosecuting officials guilty of human rights violations, and beginning “serious dialogue with civil society and opposition groups on disputed issues.” BCHR President Nabeel Rajab stated, “The dissolving of the security apparatus and the prosecution of its officials will not only distance the King from the crimes committed by this apparatus especially since 2005, such as systemic torture and the use of excessive force against peaceful protests, but will avoid the fatal mistake committed by similar apparatuses in Tunisia and Egypt which led to the loss of lives and hundreds of casualties and eventually resulted in the fall of the regimes who created these ‘double edged swords.'”

When protests did break out across the country on February 14, the government responded with mass arrests and beatings, killing one young man and injuring dozens of others. At his funeral, police shot into the crowd. One person was killed and 25 injured. Al Wefaq, a predominantly Shia party that had won a plurality of seats in the recent parliamentary elections, announced a suspension of their participation in the parliament and formally joined the demonstrations. Tens of thousands of protesters occupied the Pearl Roundabout, setting up tents in a manner similar to the mass sit-ins in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

At around 3:00 AM on February 17, without warning, riot police attacked the sleeping encampment of thousands with tear gas, batons, and bullets. Four more people were killed, including a two-year old girl shot multiple times. Al Jazeera reported that hospitals in Manama were filled with hundreds of wounded protesters and described “doctors and emergency personnel who were overrun by the police while trying to attend to the wounded.” Directly contradicting eyewitness accounts and video footage, the regime insisted the protesters had attacked the police and that security forces had used only minimal force in self-defense. Bahrain’s government, like the dictatorial regimes in Egypt and Libya, tried to blame outsiders. It insisted, for instance, that it had found weapons and flags from the radical Lebanese group Hezbollah.

Despite such provocations, the opposition’s response was largely peaceful. Pro-democracy activists gathered to pray and hold vigil outside hospitals. They engaged in more peaceful protests in the capital the following day. When confronted by security forces, protesters held their hands up high and shouted, “Peaceful! Peaceful!” Police and army units again attacked the demonstrators – along with mourners, journalists, and medics – resulting in one additional death and scores of injuries.

As has often occurred elsewhere, when a government uses illegitimate force against peaceful protesters, the protests increased in intensity rather than diminished. Recognizing this, the regime withdrew the military and police from the capital. Thousands of protesters returned to the Pearl Roundabout to resume their peaceful sit-in.

On February 22, more than 100,000 anti-government protesters took to the street. This time, the government allowed the demonstrators to march. Smaller protests continued over subsequent days. The government attempted to back down from its hard line stance–declaring a national day of mourning for those killed, freeing hundreds of political prisoners, dismissing four unpopular cabinet officials, allowing an exiled opposition leader to return, and making a series of economic concessions. On February 25, more than 200,000 people marched, a number constituting a full 40 percent of the indigenous Bahraini population. In recent days, they have escalated their protests by blockading the state television headquarters and the parliament building

Most of these protesters have called for a transition from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy, rather than the overthrow of the monarchy. They want the prime minister to resign, greater civil liberties, and a popularly elected parliament with real power.

The Iranian Bogeyman

Nearly three-quarters of the indigenous Bahraini population are Shia, even though Shias constitute barely 10 percent of the Islamic community worldwide (they are also the majority in neighboring Iran and Iraq). The Sunni-controlled Bahraini government has long discriminated against Shias in employment, housing, and infrastructure projects. The military, particularly the top elite, is mostly Sunni. The secret police are almost exclusively Sunni, and reportedly include Pakistanis and other foreign elements. Only a handful of cabinet posts, restricted to the less important ministries, have been granted to Shias. In an effort to bolster the number of Sunnis, the government has taken the unusual step of granting citizenship to some foreign Sunni workers, virtually unprecedented in other Gulf countries with large foreign worker populations. As a result, there is a sectarian element to the ongoing struggle, even if the majority of the pro-democracy protesters are not seeking a Shia-dominated state per se.

When disenfranchised Shia populations in the Middle East have organized for their rights, the regimes often label them as Iranian agents. In some cases, Iranian intelligence has supported these movements, although the vast majority are popular indigenous struggles with legitimate grievances. The Iranian connection, however false or exaggerated, introduces the fear of an Iranian plot to assert their influence and establish an Iranian-style theocracy. Thus, the specter of Iran is raised to bolster the argument that it is in the U.S. interest to support repressive regimes to suppress such movements.

However, most Bahraini Shias, unlike their counterparts in Iran and other countries, do not follow ayatollahs. Having been conquered by the Persian Empire for periods of their history, they cherish their independence and reject calls by some Persian ultra-nationalists to reincorporate Bahrain into Iran. While many Bahraini Shias were initially enthusiastic about the Islamic revolution in the immediate aftermath of the Shah’s overthrow in 1979, they – like most Iranians themselves – have since soured on the revolution as a result of its reactionary and repressive turn. Despite some fear-mongering from some pro-authoritarian elements in the United States and elsewhere who seek to depict the Bahraini uprising as a fundamentalist Shiite revolution, the protests in Bahrain have the support of both the progressive Sunni and secular populations. This pro-democracy movement is as legitimate as the popular struggles in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Signs and chants at the demonstrations indicate that they eschew sectarianism, emphasizing Shia-Sunni unity in the cause of democracy.

At the same time, because the Shia majority has the most to gain from democratic change, the protesters have been overwhelmingly Shia. The U.S.-backed regime, in a divide-and-rule strategy, has raised the specter of a Shiite fundamentalist takeover in an effort to enlist the sizable Sunni minority in protecting their privileged status, thereby creating the potential for a self-fulfilling prophecy of a polarization of Bahraini society along sectarian lines. Indeed, it was no accident that a pro-government rally organized by the regime took place in the plaza near the grand Sunni mosque–a rally thousands of Indian and Pakistani Sunnis were encouraged to join. The government is also feeling the pressure from the Saudi regime to crack down. The Saudis fear that a successful Shia-led pro-democracy struggle in Bahrain might not only encourage pro-democracy elements in their kingdom, but might encourage the restive and oppressed Shia minority in Saudi Arabia – which is concentrated in the oil-rich northeastern part of the country – to rebel as well.

International Accountability

In the aftermath of the nonviolent overthrow of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, President Obama warned other Middle Eastern leaders that they should “get ahead of the wave of protest” by quickly moving toward democracy. Even though his February 15 press conference took place during some of the worst repression in Bahrain, he chose not to mention the country by name. In the face of Bahraini security forces unleashing violence on peaceful protesters, Obama insisted that “each country is different, each country has its own traditions; America can’t dictate how they run their societies.” Although certainly a valid statement in itself, in this case it appears to have been little more than a rationalization for silence in the face of extreme violence by an autocratic ally. Indeed, the United States has hardly been silent in the face of the ongoing repression by the authoritarian regime in Libya, even though elements of the pro-democracy movement in that country, unlike in Bahrain, have taken up arms.

Meanwhile, on February 23, U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came to Bahrain to meet King Hamad and Crown Prince Salman, who serves as commander-in-chief for the Bahraini armed forces. According to Mullen’s spokesman, Navy Captain John Kirby, the admiral “reaffirmed our strong commitment to our military relationship with the Bahraini defense forces.” And, despite the massacres of the previous week, he thanked the Bahraini leaders “for the very measured way they have been handling the popular crisis here.”

Indeed, the February 25 The New York Times reported how the Obama administration “has sent out senior diplomats in recent days to offer the monarchs reassurance and advice — even those who lead the most stifling governments.” The article stressed that the administration is not averse to encouraging reforms, noting however that “American officials have sought to keep the focus on what they insist have been concessions made by Bahrain, where the Navy’s Fifth Fleet is stationed, as a sign that the protests can prod the king, and the crown prince who will head the dialogue with the protesters, in the right direction.”

A more democratic Bahrain would probably be friendlier to the Iranian regime than the current Bahraini government, but it would certainly not be an Iranian puppet. Similarly, a more democratic Bahrain would likely scale back the U.S. military presence on their small island, though it would not be stridently anti-American. Questions remain as to how much democracy the United States will encourage, even if led by a popular mass nonviolent movement. Putting the normative arguments aside, anything short of support for full democratization would be extremely short-sighted. As Professor Levine puts it, “What is more essential to American security today, convenient bases for its ships, planes and troops across the Middle East, or a full transition to democracy throughout the region?”

In both Tunisia and Egypt, the United States had to play catch up in its policy toward these allied regimes in the face of popular struggles against authoritarianism, only belatedly coming out in support of the massive nonviolent pro-democracy struggles in those countries. It would be nice if, when it comes to Bahrain, the United States would not wait until the last minute to be on the right side of history.