Commentators have offered numerous theories for what caused the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions and who participated in them. They range from youth and their chronic unemployment, to liberal activists and their demands for civil rights, to workers and absolute levels of material deprivation. Stories of individual participants and analyses of specific groups taking part in the uprisings have provided much insight into this question, but only a representative sample of participants can help weigh the importance of different factors driving protesters. The latest wave of the Arab Barometer, a nationally representative survey administered in the wake of the protests, provides some answers.
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Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are essential to democracy and a key way for people of all political views to band together to influence public debate. But once more, the Egyptian government is threatening to restrict NGOs that receive foreign funds. Exercised about criticism from some of these groups, the ruling party is pushing a bill that would empower the government to decide which groups are allowed to receive foreign funding. That would invite the government to pick favorites, approving foreign funds for lapdogs while rejecting them for critics, particularly human rights groups.
But why are foreign funds so nefarious when received by NGOs yet apparently uncontroversial when received by others? The Egyptian military receives billions of dollars in aid from the United States; does that make it a subversive organization? The Egyptian government is desperately seeking foreign funds from the International Monetary Fund (IMF); is that an act of treason? Egyptian businesses are clamoring for foreign direct investment and the spending of foreign tourists; are these acts of disloyalty?
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There could be more outrageous public relations disasters for a government to engage in. There could be. I just can't think of any. Imagine Jon Stewart being arrested on charges of insulting U.S. President Barack Obama and insulting Judaism. Then imagine that in the entire English-speaking world, there are only political satirists. You then get to what it means for the Egyptian authorities to issue an arrest warrant for Bassem Youssef, and the easily predictable repercussions. But this case goes far beyond Bassem Youssef -- it speaks to the future of freedom of expression and the media in the largest Arab country, and to the success of its ongoing revolution.
Bassem Youssef is a unique phenomenon -- a political satirist that is well known all over the Arab world, as well as the West. His meteoric rise through the use of social media and television over the past two years could never have been planned, but he emerged at a time when Egyptians and Arabs were waiting for a non-partisan critic to combine classic Egyptian irony with political awareness. In the aftermath of the Egyptian uprising, Bassem Youssef considered the revolution as a continuing one -- and that his role within it would be to push the envelope of public discourse, holding authority to account. But always with humor -- and thus far, he has touched not only the hearts of Egyptians, but of Arabs around the world.
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Following the successful ousting of the Baath regime on April 9, 2003, Iraq began its transition toward a process of democratization that gradually achieved important gains in transferring some powers to the previously disenfranchised population. This transition has progressed from direct U.S. rule to partial Iraqi participation, and finally full Iraqi administration of the country. Since Iraqis reclaimed sovereignty in 2004 they have managed to write and ratify a constitution, hold regular provincial and general elections, and begin to establish a tradition of peaceful transfer of political power and parliamentary life. This is a very significant reversal of the authoritarian rule in Iraq between 1958 and 2003, when governments were only replaced by violence and coups.
However, the slow transition to democracy and the many setbacks in the process are still frustrating to many Iraqis. This is mainly because Iraqis have no consensus on the shape of their future regime. They are divided on the questions of federalism and the scope of the central government's powers; a majority government versus a power-sharing arrangement; the identity of Iraq as a neutral state with policies driven by its national interests or as a part of some larger regional context (Arab, Islamic, etc.); among many other disputes.
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Among the urban elite and diplomatic community in Sanaa, all eyes will turn to the launch of the long-awaited National Dialogue Conference today, a key component of the transition plan agreed upon in November 2011 that ushered out former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in exchange for full immunity. The good news about the internationally-backed agreement is that Saleh was finally forced from the presidency after more than 30 years of autocratic rule and the fighting stopped. The bad news is that it did not address any of the underlying issues that have plagued Yemen since before the uprising and have only been exacerbated in the time since. The National Dialogue, thus, is positioned to tackle the thorniest issues including calls for Southern independence, the restive Houthi movement in the north, the question of federalism and decentralization, constitutional reform, empowering women and youth, and other issues.
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In some respects, Jordan's recent electoral process began and ended with Abdullah an-Nsour. Nsour was first appointed prime minister of Jordan in October 2012, replacing Fayez Tarawneh, who had served a mere five months. At that time, Nsour became the fifth prime minister of Jordan since the start of the regional Arab Spring at the end of 2010. Now, apparently, he is also the sixth, tapped to form a new government following Jordan's January 2013 parliamentary elections.
There are other signs of continuity amidst all the discussion of reform. Immediately after the elections, the new parliament elected Saad Hayel Srour to be speaker of parliament. Srour had served in the post several times before. Along similar lines, former Prime Minister Tarawneh was appointed Chief of the Royal Hashemite Court. Both men are conservative veteran officials. Similarly, the shift from Nsour to Nsour as prime minister doesn't exactly cry out "change," yet parts of the process were actually new and different.
The Egyptian opposition's decision to boycott parliamentary elections looks familiar to those of us who study Latin America, where high profile boycotts have periodically been used by parties who distrust the government in charge of administering those elections. Unfortunately for the Egyptian opposition, the Latin American experience should be seen as a cautionary tale, since boycotts have too often turned into self-inflicted political wounds. The opposition is choosing not to act as a legislative brake on the executive, thereby reducing its own political influence.
Whether in the Middle East, Latin America, or elsewhere, this is the basic scenario. A controversial regime in a politically divided country holds elections and opposition parties must decide whether to participate or withdraw. Both choices require a difficult cost-benefit calculation.
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Two years after the Police Day demonstrations that forced former President Hosni Mubarak from office, Egypt's political transformation has only just begun. The uncertainty that necessarily accompanies this change presents particular dilemmas for the United States, for whom partnership with Egypt has been a bedrock of regional policy for decades. Bedeviled by uncertainty and mutual mistrust, U.S.-Egyptian ties have been fraught since the revolution -- and on both sides there are those who say it's time to cut the cord. Yet these two countries still have many core interests in common and, as the November 2012 Gaza crisis proved, they can work together effectively to advance them.
For the United States, Egypt's revolution presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a more robust and reliable strategic partnership than was ever possible before, based on mutual interests with a government rooted in the consent of the Egyptian people and accountable to them. But realizing this opportunity will require an adroit, long-term approach, one that eschews transactional bargains with specific Egyptian actors in favor of a consistent commitment to supporting the emergence of a pluralistic Egyptian political system.
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Arriving in the Libyan capital Tripoli, it is immediately (and dispiritingly) clear just how much needs to be done before the country can experience any sort of secure and just order. During my January research trip to Libya, the city seemed to have been overtaken by a paramilitary culture. The streets of Tripoli are thronged with Libyans in military uniform; not members of a national army, but rather of an expanding constellation of independent revolutionary and military councils. The city regularly rings out with automatic gunfire, particularly at night. Its walls, meanwhile, are papered with posters of the 2011 revolution's "martyrs," some of which couple a professional studio portrait with a later, amateur picture of the same man's corpse. Surrounded on all sides by headshots of the Libyan revolution's dead, it can sometimes be difficult to imagine how Libya can achieve national reconciliation and become a stable, functioning country.
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Despite the rise of Islamist parties in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring, Islamism, as a political ideology and salvation promise, is losing much of its appeal and sanctity. This ironic point is due to many factors, however, the most important is the inability of Islamists to provide viable solutions to the chronic socio-economic problems that wreck Arab societies. It is one of the "unintended outcomes" of a transition process, to use Schmitter and Karl's definition of democratic transition. Moreover, the "lenient" and dubious reaction of Islamist governments toward the mounting influence and role of radical and violent extremists has jeopardized their image and credibility as truly "moderate" and peaceful movements and may undermine their rule if they don't restrain it.
From Morocco to Egypt, the inability of Islamist parties to effectively run the transitions is evident. Their track records over the past two years are poor and depressing. It reveals significant lack of vision and skills in running their countries and moving away from the old to new democratic regimes. Certainly, no one would expect this to happen smoothly or quickly. However, the behavior and actions of Islamists aren't ushering in a new era.
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At a press conference following the emergency national dialogue meeting held between members of the opposition and Islamist parties, prominent activist and revolutionary figure, Wael Ghonim said, "The aim of this meeting is not political, but rather to launch an initiative to stop the violence. It's a moral initiative aimed at stopping the bloodshed. That is why the Egyptian April 6 youth movement called on Al-Azhar to hold this meeting and gather together all Egypt's political forces and parties." Despite the positive first step in political reconciliation and Ghonim's encouraging words, an unspoken (yet glaring) gap stands out in this meeting: the absence of government or any other representative of the security apparatus. Although representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) attended the dialogue, no formal authority from the most significant party to the "bloodshed" -- the ministry of interior -- to which Ghonim refers could be found. Sadly, the discrepancy renders the resulting signed document committing the parties to nonviolence moot.
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Egypt approved a new constitution in a popular referendum on December 22, 2012, by a 63.8 percent vote. The establishment of the new legal framework for the post-Mubarak political order came after weeks of political turmoil, which pitted an Islamist current against a fragmented camp of liberals, leftists, and assorted non-Islamists. This diverse opposition responded to President Mohamed Morsi's fait-accompli with a return to street protests and an angry outcry against the procedures through which the constitution was introduced.
The exchange of reasoned arguments may have been a somewhat naïve aspiration prior to the popular referendum given the poisoned political climate. But it is still striking that the text of the constitutional draft received so little attention in the shrill accusations exchanged by intransigent political opponents. There may yet be time to rectify this failing, however. Representatives of the Morsi government, its opposition, and the judiciary have recently shown signs of willingness to renegotiate bits and pieces of the constitution as well as the by-laws governing the vague provisions in the document. If they do, there will be a wide range of articles to reconsider.
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Egypt's cataclysmic courtroom battles seem to be giving way to prolonged guerilla warfare over the judiciary. Attention-getting lawsuits will continue -- Egyptian judges simply see their courtrooms as places that should welcome calls for justice; Egyptians outraged by their government or their fellow citizens will continue to seek to cast their anger in legal form. Judicial anger over recent presidential actions will still simmer (indeed, I cannot remember a time when I have heard so many judges express themselves so ... well, so injudiciously). But the likelihood of a repeat of 2012's string of startling rulings is receding. That development may cause some relief to those struggling to master Egyptian law on the quick, but Egyptian politics, law, and courts are paying a price for those battles and their resolution.
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Against all expectations, Jordan's parliamentary election this week seems to have generated some optimism. The big questions had little to do with the appeal of specific political platforms or even the candidates themselves, but rather with process and turnout. Would the newly-established Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) reverse Jordan's infamous track record of electoral fraud and pull off a transparent and credible election? Would voter participation exceed levels from previous elections or would citizen apathy and Muslim Brotherhood calls for a boycott take hold? Would the next parliament reflect the same tribal voting patterns and return familiar faces to parliament or inject some new blood into the mix? Final results of the Jordanian election have yet to be announced, but early indicators answer some of these questions and paint a far more interesting picture than anticipated.
On January 23, Jordanians will return to the polls to elect a new parliament. Among the many questions surrounding these polls, of course, is this: Does it matter? Both the 2007 and 2010 elections were marred by extensive charges of rigging, and each produced a lackluster parliament that was disbanded long before its term was up. Many Jordanians complain of economic injustices, corruption in government (especially in terms of business deals connected to privatization), and an electoral and governing system that seems to maintain the status quo. Faith and confidence in the system, in short, are in short supply.
Yet the Jordanian regime has been emphatic that these elections are different. Jordan is different. In my own meetings with King Abdullah, he has consistently argued that Jordan is carving a unique path through the regional Arab Spring: that it is a case of a regime reforming itself. The regime has emphasized that Jordan is at a key turning point, including a shift toward a truer parliamentary system of governance. In an effort to engage public debate and encourage voter participation, the king has even begun publishing a series of brief political treatises. The latest of these, issued this week, addresses the transition to a more parliamentary government.
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The period of Arab uprisings that began in winter 2010 to 2011 has brought myriad changes to the region. However, one perennial constant is the willingness of official and semi-official elements in Jordan to manipulate identity issues in order to stymie meaningful reform. Indeed, given the past history of the Jordanian government, the most recent developments could be viewed as simply boring, were they not so deeply cynical and destructive.
The newest chapter in this ongoing saga of who is a Jordanian -- native East Bankers, certainly; Jordanians of Palestinian origin, not so much or perhaps not at all -- has come in response to the upcoming parliamentary elections. With only a few exceptions, most notably in 1956 and 1989, elections in Jordan have been highly controlled affairs, in which the outcomes have been largely cooked beforehand, either through changes in the electoral law (as in 1993), or through outright fraud (most notably, but certainly not exclusively, in 1997 and 2007). On occasion, when it is argued that "regional conditions" are problematic, elections have been postponed, as in the early 2000s, and in many cases some of the most significant opposition forces, most recently the Muslim Brotherhood, have decided to boycott rather than play the palace's or security forces' game.
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On January 25, thousands of Egyptians will gather in Tahrir Square and across Egypt to commemorate the uprising that toppled the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship. They will celebrate with good reason. When Mubarak, pressured by millions in the streets and ultimately betrayed by his own top generals, resigned on February 11, 2011, a military-backed dictatorship that had ruled and largely abused Egypt for more than half a century came to an end. Most Egyptians were euphoric, and the world was transfixed by the unexpected power of the Tahrir Square freedom movement.
However, in the two years since, the transition remains fragile, and Egypt's politics remain dangerously polarized. In fact, in addition to celebration, there may also be clashes on January 25. Today Egypt has an elected president, a new constitution, and will soon hold parliamentary elections. But if Egypt has made halting steps toward democracy, worrying signs of illiberalism and poor governance are increasingly apparent. The outcome of the revolution in the Arab world's most populous country remains uncertain, and the threat of violence looms large.
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President Mohamed Morsi and his advisors cannot have expected that his November 22 constitutional declaration would throw Egypt into a renewed state of turmoil. That it has speaks volumes to the immense changes that have occurred in the country during the past two years. Morsi's support for President Barack Obama's truce initiative during the fighting in Gaza clearly reassured the U.S. president that under a Muslim Brotherhood (MB) president Egypt would keep the peace with Israel. Because this has been the dominant concern within the U.S. foreign policy elite about the Egyptian revolution, Morsi had good reason to believe that the United States and the Egyptian Armed Forces would not object to his domestic decisions.
That Morsi's move has proven, in a deeply divided country, to have been a serious error of judgment is worth reflection. Early responses, especially in the United States, have either been self-satisfied sighs of recognition that the MB have finally revealed their true nature or, alternatively, sharp criticism of a westernized liberal minority that refused to accept gracefully the verdict of democracy mandating a stronger role for Islam, the MB, and Morsi himself.
Amidst intense public controversy, Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is moving to ban the widely popular television series Muhtesem Yuzyil (The Magnificent Century). Critics of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's AKP government have been expecting, with a fair dose of cynicism, such a move ever since he denounced the series as an inappropriate characterization of Turkey's ancestry. The series has already been removed from the inflight entertainment system of Turkey's national air carrier; yesterday a Turkish Airlines official cited Erdogan's remarks as the reason for this removal.
Muhtesem Yuzyil, now in its third season and watched by nearly 150 million viewers in Turkey and its neighbors, takes inspiration from the life and adventures of Sulieman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Empire's longest ruling sultan (1520-1566). While Sulieman is lauded in history textbooks for his many battlefield conquests that led to the great expansion of Ottoman-controlled territory and for being the architect of the empire's "Golden Age" of military, legal, and cultural development, the majority of the dramatic content of the series consists of palace intrigues involving assassination plots and competition among women in the palace harem.
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With the violence that broke out in front of the presidential palace in Egypt yesterday, one can no longer describe the constitutional draft produced under the Mohamed Morsi government, as just "flawed." In process, the draft is abysmal. In context, it revises history. In content, it is silent, vague, and problematic. In consequence, it is bloody. It isn't just that Egypt can do better. Ratifying this constitution would reward, and deepen, polarization -- and the goals of the January 25 revolution would be that much further away from being achieved.
The most obvious problems with the constitutional draft are procedural. The process was supposed to deliver a representative constituent assembly, which would produce a consensus-based document that the overwhelming majority of Egyptians would sign up to, and feel invested in. The first assembly was dismissed in April, after the supreme administrative court pointed out members of parliament could not elect themselves onto the assembly, and that the assembly involved too few women, young people, and representatives of minority groups.
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The Arab Spring was hard on Arab presidents: most of the personalist presidential autocracies are now gone. But no Arab monarchs fell during the Arab Spring. Why did the monarchs fare so well? The strong correlation between monarchism and survival suggests, of course, that monarchism had something (or everything) to do with it. Some scholars, however, have argued the success of the monarchs does not have much to do with their monarchism, but can be traced to other factors, especially oil and foreign support. These factors are not irrelevant, but monarchism still mattered, and for two reasons. The monarchs benefited, first, from their ability to promise reform and, second, from the sense amongst their citizens that, while not ideal, monarchical rule was better than the republican alternatives. These factors, however, are not permanent, and the ability of the monarchs to weather the recent storms does not mean that they will fare as well the next time unrest sweeps the Arab world.
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The unusually intense protests that swept Jordan two weeks ago in response to the government's decision to raise fuel subsidies focused attention on the kingdom's long-simmering political crisis. The protests shocked many observers not only because of their size and geographical scope, but because of the virtually unprecedented calls for the overthrow of the monarchical regime. The protests tapered off after a few days, partly due to a backlash against these more extreme slogans among a generally reformist opposition. But even if the Jordanian monarchy was not to be quickly swept away, deep and fundamental political problems remain unresolved.
To get a better sense of the meaning of these protests, I sat down with Jillian Schwedler of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst for the eighth in our series of POMEPS Conversations with leading Middle East specialists (the full series can be found here, with the latest featured each week in the video box of the Middle East Channel home page). Schwedler, who is completing a book on the politics of popular protest in Jordan, helps to explain why the tens of thousands demonstrating in the downtown al-Hussein mosque which impress the casual observer are less politically significant than a few hundred at the interior ministry. Schwedler had this to say:
The subsiding of the headline-grabbing protests does not mean that Jordan's political crisis is over. Nor is it likely that the crisis will be resolved by elections held under an unpopular election law, boycotted by most opposition parties, and viewed as irrelevant by most activist youth. Popular mobilization is rapidly reshaping the contours of Jordanian political life in ways which the Jordanian regime seems unable or unwilling to recognize. The fading of the most potent protests (for now) should not lead anyone to relax about the country's fate.
For more on Jordan's troubled politics, see these recent articles from the Middle East Channel:
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The bargaining among Egypt's political forces over the content of the country's constitution has been noisy, public, stormy, and dramatic. Indeed, over the past week, that tussle has brought the entire constitution drafting effort into crisis. It is still not clear whether that bargaining can still lead to a consensual document or whether the Constituent Assembly will collapse or produce a star-crossed constitution.
But there has been another bargaining process that has drawn far less attention and commentary, even though much of it has been carried out in clear public view. Even those parts of this second process that have taken place behind closed doors still have left unmistakable footprints in the various drafts. And while not devoid of drama, the slightly quieter process seems more likely to produce successful outcomes. This is the bargaining among various structures of the Egyptian state.
At first glance the Gulf monarchies look stable, at least compared to the broader region. In reality, however, the political and economic structures that underpin these highly autocratic states are coming under increasing pressure, and broad swathes of citizens are making hitherto unimaginable challenges to the ruling elites.
These six monarchies -- Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman -- have faced down a number of different opposition movements over the years. However, for the most part, these movements have not been broad-based and have tended to represent only narrow sections of the indigenous populations. Moreover, given their various internal and external survival strategies -- including distributive economic systems and overseas soft power accumulation -- the incumbent regimes have generally been in strong, confident positions, and have usually been able to placate or sideline any opposition before it could gain too much traction. In most cases the Gulf monarchies have also been very effective at demonizing opponents, either branding them as foreign-backed fifth columns, as religious fundamentalists, or even as terrorists. In turn this has allowed rulers and their governments to portray themselves to the majority of citizens and most international observers as safe, reliable upholders of the status quo, and thus far preferable to any dangerous and unpredictable alternatives. Significantly, when modernizing forces have begun to impact their populations -- often improving communications between citizens or their access to education -- the Gulf monarchies have been effective at co-option, often bringing such forces under the umbrella of the state or members of ruling families, and thus managing to apply a mosaic model of traditional loyalties alongside modernization even in the first few years of the 21st century.
More recently, however, powerful opposition movements have emerged that have proved less easy to contain.
Why does monarchy march on while republican dictatorships precariously wobble in the Arab world? The undertow of the Arab Spring reveals how unevenly revolutionary unrest spread throughout the region. While popular uprisings rocked the autocratic republics, not a single ruling monarchy fell. Opposition stood quiet in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), while Oman and Saudi Arabia saw only isolated agitation. Popular reform movements mobilized in Jordan and Morocco, but they fizzled out. Ongoing protests in Kuwait reflect a longstanding tradition of civic activism and political contestation that far predates the Arab Spring. Only Bahrain experienced new large-scale unrest, but military intervention by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) ended the troubles.
The last time Erkan Yildirim visited his imprisoned wife, Pervin, she told him about her recent meeting with their colleague, Fatma. "Pervin said Fatma was very sluggish, that her eyes were slowly darkening, that two or three people had to bring her to and from the bathroom," says Yildirim, nearly choking on the words. At that time, Fatma had been on a hunger strike for more than a month.
What his wife said next, however, was even more troubling. Pervin informed Yildirim that she was about to begin her own indefinite hunger strike.
Egypt's ultraconservative Salafis have always had an authoritarian streak. Under Hosni Mubarak, Salafis scored points with the regime for taking a philosophical stand against democracy, which they rejected as an un-Islamic model of government. Mubarak successfully coopted Salafis to provide a religious justification for authoritarianism, and used the movement as a counterweight to the Muslim Brotherhood's demands for political reform. During the January 2011 uprising, Salafis initially denounced mass protests against Mubarak, claiming that Islam prohibits rebellions against Muslim rulers.
When it became apparent that the old authoritarian system was disintegrating, Salafis reluctantly reversed their position on political participation and formed parties as a necessary means to achieve their end-game: a theocratic state. But now that the democratic process is derailing their efforts to enshrine Islamic law in Egypt's new constitution, Salafis appear to be reverting to their authoritarian roots.
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During his recent visit to the United States, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi of Yemen expressed his concerns that if the National Dialogue -- a forum supposedly representing the major political players in Yemen -- fails, Yemen could slide into a civil war that will be worse than those in Somalia or Afghanistan. Part of this rhetoric was strategic, intended to nudge the so-called "Friends of Yemen" to commit to much needed (although potentially pernicious) aid. Nevertheless, Hadi is only slightly exaggerating the dangers Yemen could face, and recent developments -- such as the delay of the National Dialogue -- make his predictions more worrisome.
Hadi, who ran unopposed in February, was elected after a prolonged stalemate since January 2011. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-engineered compromise that ensured the transfer of power from then President Ali Abdullah Saleh to Hadi helped avert the civil war that Yemen was dangerously skirting at that time. Many groups in Yemen, however, view the GCC deal as a failure and an imposition that ensured that formal and informal power remain in the hands of old elites. As the International Crisis Group (ICG) reports, Yemeni elites have kept their hold on power as they continue to play musical chairs with government positions. Meanwhile, the Houthi rebels in the North, the Hiraaki separatists in the South, as well as various youth groups who were the backbone of the early days of the revolution, are left out of the deal.
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The Bahraini government seems to understand freedom of expression a bit like Lance Armstrong understands clean cycling. Like Lance, it prefers to play by its own rules and attack critics rather than accept normal standards. The Kingdom has invented a curious definition of free expression where criticizing members of the ruling family on Twitter can land you in court. The Bahraini regime's credibility is as damaged as that of world cycling -- the government needs to implement drastic measures that go beyond public relations to restore international trust.
Bahrainis can't say they weren't warned. On September 9, Bahrain's Ministry of the Interior announced it would "soon tackle crimes related to defamation and abuse on social media networks." A senior official in the ministry noted that "some people were using the communication technology to abuse national and public figures through the Internet," and that the ministry "had received many complaints from public figures affected by such acts who have demanded action against this."
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