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The Syrian army used tanks, machine guns, and heavy artillery to beat back anti-government protesters. Nearly 400 people have died since the crackdown began five weeks ago. Yesterday in Libya, pro Qaddafi forces shelled a residential neighborhood in Misrata killing at least 12. In Yemen, there’s an exit plan for the country’s long time president and the first political transition in that country’s modern history: Join us for an update on political turmoil and violence taking place in countries across the Mideast and Northern Africa and the high stakes questions these developments are raising for the region and the world.
- Anthony Shadid reporter, The New York Times winner of the 2004 Pulitzer for International Reporting
- Samer Shehata assistant professor of Arab politics, Georgetown University Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.
- Michele Dunne senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and editor of the monthly online journal, "Arab Reform Bulletin."
- Hisham Melhem Washington bureau chief for Al-Arabiya TV, and Washington correspondent for "An-Nahar."
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Violence and political turmoil continued to upend a number of countries across the Middle East and Northern Africa. Joining me in the studio to try to comprehend the latest news from Syria, Libya, Yemen and other countries in the region and some of the many strategic implications, Samer Shehata, he's assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University, Hisham Melhem, he's Washington bureau chief for Al-Arabiya TV and Washington correspondent for An-Nahar, and Michele Dunne, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, editor of the monthly online journal Arab Reform Bulletin.
MS. DIANE REHMAnd throughout the hour, I'll look forward to hearing from you, 800-433-8850. First, we are joined by phone from Beirut by Anthony Shadid. He's a reporter for The New York Times. Anthony, thanks for joining us.
MR. ANTHONY SHADIDMy pleasure, Diane.
REHMYou wrote yesterday that the Syrian military's move yesterday seems to signal a new and a harrowing chapter in the crackdown there. Talk about why.
SHADIDWell, I think, since the uprising began more than five weeks ago, we've seen a mix of concession and crackdown as the government tries to negotiate what is basically the biggest threat to its four decades of rule. Yesterday seemed to be a decisive turn in terms of escalating that crackdown. The army deployed tanks and either hundreds, or even thousands, of soldiers to the most restive of a town, a place called Daraa. It seem to signal that the government was going to resort to even, you know, greater degrees of violence in crushing this uprising.
SHADIDThere were reports today, still, of firing in the streets of Daraa. Despite that military presence, there are sporadic protests. But, I think, in Daraa and perhaps in other cities, you know, in coming days, we're going to see the military take, you know, very decisive steps to end these demonstrations in dissent.
REHMTell me how you're getting your information. I know you're in Beirut. How can you manage to find out what's going on?
SHADIDWell, it's incredibly frustrating, you know. To be frank, we're having to rely on phones, basically, Skype, Internet accounts, conversations with Syrians in Lebanon, Syrians that we can reach inside the country. It's incomplete reporting, to be honest with you. And I think there's even a danger in not capturing, you know, completely what the picture is on the ground, you know. We understand maybe the breadth of the protests, but we don't understand the depth.
SHADIDWe're hearing probably far more from protesters than we're hearing from supporters of the government, and there are still substantial bastions of support for this government. So it's a frustrating -- it's one of the more frustrating, you know, stories that we have come across so far this year. But, you know, we're left with a, you know, little alternative.
REHMSo foreign correspondents are absolutely prohibited from reporting from Syria?
SHADIDThat's right. I mean, there are some people who managed to get it on tourist visas -- they report for a little while and then try to leave -- but even that has proven problematic. And people have been detained in past weeks. I think there is a discussion going on within the Syrian government on whether or not to let in reporters. I think, you know, to a remarkable degree, the Syrian government has ceded the narrative of this uprising almost entirely to the opposition, and not just the opposition, but in fact, a somewhat small group of activists abroad who have proven themselves very savvy with the Internet and managed to smuggle out reports on a daily basis via Skype, via cell phones, via satellite modems.
SHADIDBut it's -- clearly, the case of the Syrian government does not have, really, its perspective being heard at this point, and that's almost entirely the result of barring journalists from reporting there.
REHMYou have said that yesterday was really, really bad. How far do you think the government is willing to go to make sure that this uprising is clamped down?
SHADIDI think the government is willing to go as far as it needs to go. And, I think, in terms of violence, we could see far greater degrees of violence. This isn't a government that, at least now, has signaled its intention to make far-reaching reforms, for instance, you know, removing an article from the constitution, which pretty much leaves power solely in the hands of the Ba'ath Party. To make far reaching reform, they would have to get rid of that article in the constitution. There is no indication they would do that. That leaves little alternative, in some ways, but violence, and they have not shown a reluctance to shoot people, basically, to kill people, in order to crush this uprising.
REHMBut the question is, is this a fight the government can win?
SHADIDWell, I don't think you've seen a great degree of -- you've seen foreign condemnation, but I don't think it's to the degree that would force the government to act in a different direction. I think this is a government that's long been accustomed to having trouble with the West or with the United States. And it's often played a policy of waiting till the pressure subsides, and then it, you know, tries to mend fences. I think that's probably the mindset of the government right now.
SHADIDYou know, we've seen condemnations, but we haven't seen much beyond that at this point. That doesn't mean that the government isn't suffering in some regards from, you know -- I think more specifically, President Bashar al-Assad isn't suffering from what's happened here. He has lost support. He was seen as somewhat of a reformer by a certain segment of the Syrian population. You know, stories circulated in Damascus of him driving his own car, of having coffee in public cafes. There's no way that Bashar Assad right now is going to drive his car in Damascus.
REHMMm hmm. Mm hmm.
SHADIDAnd I think his reputation has taken a hit. I think he's lost some of his standing. And he's had to fall back onto this clique that pretty much rules the country, a clique that's made up of his family, of his relatives, of people most loyal to that family. And that's where, I think, his future or his survival is going to rest.
REHMMm hmm. All right. Michele Dunne has a question for you.
MS. MICHELE DUNNEWell, I'm wondering, Anthony, what do you think about whether there is any possibility for people to accept this idea of making reforms? It seems to me that the credibility of these promises are so low, had Bashar al-Assad offered these kind of concessions five years ago, I think people would have viewed them very differently. But do you think there's any possibility that he can offer political concessions that would actually cause the demonstrators to go home at this point?
SHADIDYeah, I think that's a great question. I think, you know, lifting emergency rule after nearly five decades of it being imposed on the country is not an insubstantial step. And I think, just like you pointed out, had it been done five years ago, had it even been done six weeks ago before the protest erupted in Daraa, it may have had a very different impact on the country. I think what you're dealing with right now is the sense that reform is kind of a hackneyed word that the government often trods out but doesn't really meet. I think the demands out there right now are changed in some ways, and change is much more far-reaching than this government is willing to consider.
SHADIDIt's difficult to see the government taking those steps, in some ways, to meet the demands of what you're hearing out there in the street right now. And I don't want to say that's the majority opinion in the country necessarily, but to meet the demands of the protesters right now would basically mean the disillusion of the regime in some form or another.
REHMOh. Hisham Melhem has a question for you.
MR. HISHAM MELHEMHello, Anthony. The...
MELHEMHow are you? The demonstrations began in Daraa and other rural areas, and then we've seen demonstrations at the outskirts of Damascus. Given the important role of the merchant classes in the two major cities, in Aleppo and Damascus -- and many of them are Sunnis and Christians and others, not only Alawis -- people argue that if the demonstrations reaches the heart of Damascus and if the merchant classes turn against the regime, that this will be -- that would signal the beginning of the end of the regime. Do you agree with that? And do you see any signs that there is -- we're heading in that direction?
SHADIDI think that's exactly right, Hisham. I think when you ask people what they're looking for in terms of a dramatic shift in this uprising, they point those two factors out. Does the economic elite in places like Damascus and Aleppo turn against the government? Do you see big protests in Damascus itself? And, I think, the government has that same calculation. The -- you know, the dozens of deaths we saw in the outskirts of Damascus were precisely that point. The government was going to stop people from marching on the capital, and they, so far, have done that to a certain degree. Aleppo, again, the second largest city, you know, long having a rivalry with Damascus, we haven't seen much going on inside Aleppo itself.
SHADIDSo, I think, unless we see the economic elite turning decisively against the government, somehow lending its support to the uprising, or we see big protests happening inside Damascus, Aleppo just probably -- this uprising doesn't gain traction that threatens, in the near term, the regime's survival. You know, we have to remember, back in 1982, the merchant class in Damascus did not turn against Hafez al-Assad's government, and that was a key -- you know, that was a key moment, I think, in his survival when he faced the revolt that was encapsulated in the -- or that ended with the massacre in Hama.
REHMAll right. And Samer Shehata has a question.
PROF. SAMER SHEHATAYes, Anthony. I mean, is there any way to imagine, from your perspective and from the perspective of Beirut, an overthrow of this regime by people power -- in other words, you know, what we saw in Tunisia and Egypt? It seems, because of the character of this regime, what would be more likely would be some kind of maneuver from the security services, the army if things got out of hand. But this is a fundamentally different type of regime, of course, credibly brutal and dictatorial, but a different type of regime than what we saw in Egypt, for example.
SHADIDI think that's right, Samer. And I -- you know, and I think, you know, the makeup of Syria is so different in a lot of respects than Egypt and Tunisia as well. And there is deep anxiety among minorities in Syria over the prospect of the class of this regime, particularly among Christians and Alawites. You know, they fear the day after. I think you're right, that it would be -- it's -- at this point, it's difficult to see tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands in the streets of Damascus calling for the end of the government.
SHADIDAnd I think you're right also that, you know, in the near term, what might create change more quickly is some segment of the security service of the military turning against the regime. It does seem, at least from here, at least from Beirut -- and, again, this is, you know, an incomplete picture -- but it seems that there's a mindset among those security forces that to turn against this regime would threaten their own survival.
SHADIDIn other words, there is still an Alawite grip on the security services, on the intelligence posts within the military. To turn against the government, to turn against the regime itself...
SHADID...might threaten their own hold on power.
REHMAnthony Shadid, a reporter for The New York Times, winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting. Thank you so much for joining us.
SHADIDMy pleasure, Diane.
REHMAnd welcome back. You've heard Anthony Shadid. He is reporting from Beirut because no foreign correspondents are being allowed into Syria. Here in the studio, Samer Shehata of Georgetown University, Hisham Melhem of Al-Arabiya TV and An-Nahar, and Michele Dunne. She's with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. If you'd like to join us, 800-433-8850, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Send your tweets and join us on Facebook. Michele Dunne, the Obama administration is considering more sanctions. Are they going to do any good as far as Syria is concerned?
DUNNEYes. They're considering sanctions that would target Bashar al-Assad personally and some other key figures in the regime. I really -- I don't think these will have a direct effect on Bashar al-Assad's actions inside of Syria. What they're meant to do, however, is to allow the U.S. administration to distance itself from Assad. Everybody knows that the Obama administration wanted to sort of have a rapprochement with Syria, to -- there have been many initiatives to improve relations with Syria. Now, I think, President Obama made some very strong statements over the weekend after there was, you know, a great deal of killing in Syria on Friday, using words like strongly condemn in the strongest possible terms, et cetera. So they're trying to show strong disapproval.
DUNNEIt's aimed, I think, partly at an American domestic audience to say that we're doing something, we're taking -- we're somehow turning up the pressure on Syria, and partly at Syria itself in the sense of just signaling to others in the regime and so forth that al-Assad enjoys diminishing support from the Obama administration.
REHMSamer, aren't sanctions already in place? And what do you believe added sanctions would do?
SHEHATAWell, Michele is exactly right, that sanctions are already in place, and they limit things like technology transfer and certain economic and financial transactions. So, in reality, in terms of the consequence of U.S. sanctions, they're likely to do very little. That doesn't mean that they aren't important as a signaling device, as a condemnation, as Michele Dunne -- as Michele said. But as -- we have to remember, Syria's primary external allies are not in Western Europe or the United States.
SHEHATAAnd it is Iran, and then, of course, Hezbollah in Lebanon. And they are not going to quiver or equivocate in their continued support for this regime. So perhaps the symbolic measures of sanctions, I think, the U.S. pressure on European allies to also take a firm stance to condemn Syria and then work in the Security Council to isolate Syria as well and to really unmask, once and for all, the image of Bashar al-Assad as a reformer -- this is a brutal dictatorship.
REHMHisham Melhem, how are events in Syria related to what else is happening in that whole region?
MELHEMWell, I mean, this is the -- now, the movement of emancipation, liberation that began in Tunisia has reached Syria. Syria is pivotal, and it's much more important, for instance, than a country like Libya in terms of what a positive change in Damascus will mean to the whole region that we call the Levant of the Eastern Mediterranean. I would argue that the political map of the Eastern Mediterranean -- and probably even the Gulf -- will change if you have a positive change in Damascus, if the regime falls and then you have a representative government in Damascus and not this man, who inherited power from his father in an incredibly strange twist where his father established the first dynasty and not a republic.
MELHEMAnd because of Syria's role in Lebanon, Syria's role in the Arab-Israeli conflict, Syria's special relationship with Iran, that special relationship with Iran allowed Iran, for the first time since the great Persian-Greek wars of antiquity, to become a Mediterranean power. And so a change in Syria is extremely important. To go back to sanctions quickly, these sanctions will be important if they are followed by similar sanctions in the Security Council, similar to those that were imposed by the United States and the European allies against Iran.
MELHEMAlready, the Bush administration imposed exact sanctions against some members, senior members of the leadership in Damascus. And now some of the names that are being, you know, studied include the brothers -- the president, the brother of the president, Maher Assad, who is leading the crackdown in Daraa and other places. But, I think, there is a message here to the Syrian people that we are not going to ignore. And, frankly, the Obama policy of engaging Damascus and Tehran has reached a dead end. And there is a tremendous pressure on the administration -- from Congress, from the media, from human rights organization -- to take a tougher position. And I think the president is still finding it difficult for him to admit that his approach to Syria has failed or has reached a dead end.
REHMSamer, explain the situation in Libya that's going on now.
SHEHATAWell, unfortunately, Mr. Qaddafi still is clinging on to power, and this is now several weeks after the United Nations' sanctions efforts against his regime. Of course, he's continuing to not only bombard civilian populations, but to lie about it. Several days ago, he declared -- or his regime declared a withdrawal of Libyan forces from Misurata, but, unfortunately, Misurata continues to be shelled, civilian populations. And he has shown no hesitation whatsoever to use the full brunt of military force against not only the people who are opposed to his regime, but also civilians in Misurata and other cities.
SHEHATAAnd that's why, I think, we're seeing increased efforts and commitments and statements by not only the United States, the use now of Predator drones, but the Italians' willingness to have targeted missions against Libyan armed forces and so on because, of course, it's not in anyone's interest for this to be prolonged any further.
REHMBut, now, Libya is claiming that these Predator drones and NATO are targeting Qaddafi himself. Michele.
DUNNEWell, there was a partial bombing of the compound where Qaddafi is. I think that was meant to be a message. It does not seem as though it was really meant to kill a lot of people, and it didn't. It didn't -- it doesn't seem to have caused casualties. It seems to me as though that was a message from NATO to Qaddafi, and especially to the people around Qaddafi: Don't take it for granted that we won't take the battle to you in Tripoli. You know, you can't just sit there in Tripoli and feel that it isn't going to come to you.
MELHEMLook, it is legitimate in conflicts like this to destroy the communication networks of your enemy. I remind you of what happened when NATO bombed Serbia in the mid-1990s during the Balkan War. They destroyed radio stations, television stations. You have to blind the enemy, so to speak, and, apparently, they failed to do that in an effective way early in the campaign. And, I think, now, the United States has realized that NATO, without U.S. leadership, doesn't mean much.
MELHEMThe Europeans are great on the talk, and they are very -- they are not necessarily great when it comes to achieving, you know, military results, particularly the French. I mean, the French led the Obama administration into this fight. They were the loudest, and yet this president was dragged into this conflict. And they put some effort early on. But unless the United States lead, nothing will happen. There are -- look, call it the burden of leadership. Call it the burden of empire. Call it American exceptionalism. Call it whatever. There are certain things only the United States can do. Either we do them all the way. We cannot -- I mean, you cannot be half-pregnant here.
REHMAnd, of course, that's exactly what Sen. John McCain is asking for, Samer.
SHEHATAWell, that's right. And that's why McCain visited Benghazi and met with the Libyan opposition government. Of course, there's a debate in this country about whether Libya is in the national security interest of the United States. It's a fascinating…
REHMAs Hisham said earlier in the program.
SHEHATAThat's right. I mean, you know, it's amazing. I'm usually against foreign interventions and was against the Iraqi, you know, war and went to Iraq, actually, before the war. But, in this case, I find myself arguing against those who would argue in the foreign policy community that it's not in the United States' interest to get entangled in the Libyan quagmire. I believe it's very much in the U.S. interest to be on the side of positive freedoms and revolutionary waves.
REHMBut then how do we know what those rebels represent?
SHEHATAWell, we don't know. We have some idea of what they represent. They're certainly not a coherent group. There are those who espouse democratic ideals and want Libya to be a state governed by law and a constitution as opposed to the Qaddafi family. There are also Islamists involved as well. I think any kind of regime led by the individuals that we've seen in the transitional government would be much better than Mr. Qaddafi, Big Brother, who has been in power since 1969 and has destroyed systematically all political institutions in Libya in that country and has been involved in international terrorism and destabilizing efforts, not only -- including in his neighbors.
DUNNEI think we have to remember, too, what the actual choices were that faced us when the international community got involved in militarian intervention in Libya. It's not as though it was a choice between leaving everything as it was in Libya and intervening. What we were facing at that point was a civilian massacre. You know, Qaddafi's forces were poised outside a major city, Benghazi, the seat of the rebellion. And he made it absolutely clear that he was going to go in, that hundreds, probably thousands, of people would be killed and thousands of people arrested. There would have been, you know, a horrendous crackdown throughout the country.
DUNNEAnd if the United States and the international community had stood back and watched that happen, I think we would have regretted it. That doesn't mean we're in a great situation now, but I think it's a better situation now than it would have been, had we not done anything.
MELHEMYou know, Libya is not that strategically important for the United States. I mean, this is not -- we're not talking Saudi Arabia. We don't even import a lot of oil from Libya. So, in that sense, it's not that important. But you always face the conundrum when you have active mass killing of civilians. And what do you do? I always remind people, if the United States did not intervene in Kosovo and in Bosnia to save thousands of lives -- because in Kosovo and Bosnia, we had -- for the first time since the Holocaust, people were being killed because of their ethnic background, religious background, on European soil, and the European states did nothing to stop it until the United States decided to lead.
MELHEMAnd this -- and we have almost similar situation. We have a humanitarian crisis in Libya, and that's why the United States was forced, in many ways, to lead. And that's why this present...
REHMBut you got -- you've also got military exhaustion in this country on the part of the people.
MELHEMTrue, that's all true. That's all true.
REHMSo how do you convince the people of the United States that more money, more boots on the ground, more use of military forces is warranted in Libya's case, Samer?
SHEHATAWell, certainly, there's one thing that needs to be said, and I think it is amazing. And this should be a message to everyone, that there has not been one major protest in the Arab world against the military involvement of NATO and the United States with regard to Libya. In fact, it is amazing to see that there have been widespread denunciations of Mr. Qaddafi, even by Islamists. So there is a -- this is very much different than what we saw with regard to the 2003 Iraq War and the condemnation throughout the Arab world for that military misadventure.
REHMSamer Shehata of Georgetown University. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Libya, Syria. Move on to Yemen. What's happening there, Michele?
DUNNEIn Yemen, there is a possible political deal. The Gulf Cooperation Council states have brokered a deal between President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the opposition coalition, the joint meeting parties, in which Saleh would step down from power in a month and it would be handed over to a coalition government and so forth. However -- and it seems as though the opposition parties are willing to go with this. But there's another factor, which is that a lot of the protesters in the streets in Yemen, the youth protesters, have said, we have not accepted this deal. And, you know, it's not clear whether they will accept it.
DUNNEAgain, there is no trust. Even giving President Saleh a month, to them, is too much, that he'll find a way to wiggle out of it because he's made a lot of promises to reform in the past and then hasn't done so. So it's not yet clear. There is supposed to be a signing of this deal next week in Saudi Arabia. I would say it's not clear yet. You have to watch what happens on the streets in Yemen over the next few days.
MELHEMThe thing is, he said no. He initially agreed, and now he's -- he changed his mind again. So there is no deal for him.
REHMSo you're saying the 30 days is out the window?
MELHEMYeah, it's not only the opposition. I mean, some in the opposition want him to leave yesterday, but he essentially agreed to this -- to a deal that was supported by the Gulf Cooperation Council, all the Gulf countries, plus the United States. And some in the opposition were willing to go along with it. He turned it down. He said, I'm going to stay until the end of my term. And this man cannot be trusted at all. I mean, this man is worse than Qaddafi or is in the same league with the Qaddafi...
REHMDo you agree...
SHEHATAI think that's very true. And I think, also, the protesters on the streets -- and we've seen this throughout the Arab world. With the use of force by these regimes against the protesters, their demands increase. They escalate. And now the idea of not holding Ali Abdullah Saleh accountable for the deaths that his regime has committed against the protesters is outrageous for many of the people there. Him and his family, I think, and the regime elements need to be held accountable.
REHMWell, what does that mean? How much farther can external forces put pressure on him to live up to his agreement?
SHEHATAWell, I think that it's primarily going to be up to the protesters again. I mean, one of the things that Mr. Ali Abdullah Saleh demanded was that -- as far as the agreement -- was that the protests cease immediately. And, of course, this was not something that was tolerable to anyone because in democratic society, you're supposed to be able to peacefully protest. So I think that the primary force moving him will not be the leaders in the GCC meeting in Riyadh or officials in Washington, although they can certainly exert pressure. It'll be the continued sustain movement of millions of protesters in Yemen. And it really has been remarkable to see.
SHEHATAThis is the longest Arab revolution so far, and there has been widespread -- in all of the governance of Yemen, all of the provinces, including by hundreds of thousands of Yemeni women as well. So it really is quite remarkable.
REHMI have one last question which I'd like a yes or no to before we go to the break. David Ignatius said on this program last week that he believes that what is needed here is patience, that this will resolve. It may take years. But it will resolve, and the world will be better off. Yes or no, Michele?
DUNNEYes. With one caveat, which is I don't think that means that the United States and the international community should remain completely neutral. I think we should support the change, but I agree with that.
MELHEMPatience and sticking to certain principles on the part of the United States and the Europeans. The outside world still has a role to play.
SHEHATAYes. I think authoritarianisms days are numbered, but, of course, it'll come to an end through continued struggle.
REHMShort break. When we come back, your calls.
REHMAnd welcome back. We'll go right to the phones, to Terry in Wildwood, N.J. Good morning. You're on the air.
TERRYGood morning. I have a question about Syrian Security.
TERRYIt seems to me -- I've noticed in other countries, notably Egypt, that the police and security were reluctant to fire upon their countrymen, whereas in Syria, securities have no compunction at all. Are they immoral? Are there tribal things going on? That is my question.
REHMAll right. Michele.
DUNNEWell, let me start by saying that in Egypt and in Tunisia as well, I think, the police, actually, were willing to fire on demonstrators. It was when the army was brought in -- the regular armed forces were brought in that they basically said no. And it was because, I think, that those armed forces had some sense of professionalism, had a sense that they had a reputation, that they were -- and they wanted to keep their reputation with the people of the country a good one. And, therefore, they were willing, in the end, to choose between restoring stability to the country and loyalty to the president. They chose stability to the country and in the country and their reputation with the people.
DUNNEIn Syria, I think, you know, it's a different situation with the president's brother, and Libya similarly. Qaddafi has his sons in charge of key military units. This wasn't the case in places like Egypt and Tunisia. You didn't have the same kind of nepotism at the upper levels of the military.
REHMHere's an email from Bill in Beloit, Wis., who says, "Please talk about what it will take for the U.S. to put real pressure on the Bahraini government to end the brutal crackdown on the Shia opposition and begin political reforms. Is there really any hope we will stand up to Saudi pressure for silence in this matter?" Samer.
SHEHATAWell, it's a great question. And Bahrain is certainly a tragedy because it has not made the headlines. And it has also been neglected, unfortunately, intentionally by Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiya because of their affiliations with Saudi Arabia and their fear of what's going on in the Gulf. I think, certainly, there needs to be increased pressure regarding Bahrain. Of course, the 5th Fleet is there. It's considered a U.S. ally. It's also in the vision or framework of Iran because of the majority Shia population. But I think we have to be clear about our principles.
SHEHATAThe protesters in Bahrain were protesting peacefully. They were calling for a constitutional monarchy and basic rights, and, unfortunately, with the help of Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and, really, a blind eye from the United States, the Al Khalifa family managed to brutally repress the Feb. 14 uprising.
REHMHisham, as Washington bureau chief for Al-Arabiya, how do you respond?
MELHEMWe -- I mean, I wish we covered Bahrain more. There were restrictions on coverage on -- imposed on a lot of people, including us.
REHMWhat kind of restrictions?
MELHEMWell, I mean, you know, movement, interviewing people. I mean, you know, the usual restrictions that governments who are in defensive position or...
REHMOr is it a philosophical?
MELHEMNo, not on our part. But, definitely, the Saudis and the rest of the Arab states in the Gulf found it in their own interest to believe -- something I don't believe -- that the events in Bahrain are being either triggered or exploited by Iran. Now, even the Secretary of Defense of the United States, Robert Gates, said he didn't believe that Iran instigated them, although he said that Iran may exploit the situation, which probably I believe, too. Definitely, in Bahrain, we have a clear case of a government that was blinded to the reality of the country.
MELHEMYou have at least 70 percent of the population are Shia, who are asking for more empowerment and more representative government, and they were doing so peacefully. And the government, you know, cracked down on them violently. Here, we have a case of double standards. I mean -- and I would even say that the United States' position initially was much better than the position of the GCC countries. But then the GCC countries created a fait accompli and sent their troops to Bahrain to crush a peaceful rebellion. At the same time, they gave the approval of the Arab world for the use of force against Libya. So talk about double standards.
REHMAll right. To Ali in San Antonio, Texas. Good morning. You're on the air. Hello? Ali?
REHMYes. Go right ahead, sir.
ALIHello, Diane. Thank you for having me. Just -- my question was the same as the last question about Bahrain, and I just got my answer from those gentlemen over there. Thank you so much. I appreciate that.
REHMAnd is that it? Go ahead, Michele.
DUNNEI agree with Samer, that it's a terrible situation in Bahrain. There's a crackdown going on now with hundreds of people being arrested insofar that I don't think we've seen the end of the story. I think we're going to see, unfortunately, a lot more violence in Bahrain. But all of this points out, to me, a broader issue, which is the United States-Saudi relationship. The United States and Saudi Arabia have had overlapping interests in the Middle East for a long time. And we still have many overlapping interests. But we've always have different values. And those -- that problem is really coming to the surface now. We've been able to sweep it under the rug for a long time, but it came out very clearly in Bahrain.
DUNNEThere was an effort by the Obama administration, by Secretary Gates, to offer the Bahrainis different advice, the Bahraini monarch, to persuade him, to make some concessions, to make some reforms. And, ultimately, he took the Saudi advice, not the American advice.
DUNNEBut we are seeing indications of a lot of Saudi discomfort. With all the changes in the region, I think it's a bit of a curb. They are very, very worried about Syria for exactly the reason that Samer said. If Egypt turns into a democracy and Syria, then what does that mean for Saudi Arabia? I mean, the -- you know, the region really would look very different. Saudi policy regarding the changes in Egypt and Tunisia, they are not very supportive of these democratic transitions. So I think we're going to see the United States and Saudi Arabia at loggerheads in a lot of these issues.
SHEHATAWell, I think it's overdue. Saudi Arabia has clearly shown itself to be a force of reaction in the region, opposed to of the -- for the most part, with the exception of Libya -- revolutionary freedom movements. In Egypt, of course, Saudi Arabia supported Mr. Mubarak not only until he was deposed, but even afterwards, calling on Egyptians not to try Mr. Mubarak. In Bahrain, of course, the Saudis sent their troops over the bridge to help the Bahrainis suppress the uprising. And, of course, Mr. Ben Ali, the ousted Tunisian dictator, finds his home in Saudi Arabia, so, clearly, a force against democracy in the region if people didn't know it before.
REHMAnd what's happening right now in Egypt? There is ongoing turmoil. Samer.
SHEHATARight. Well, you know, this is -- Egypt has just gone through a major revolution, and there are still issues having to do with the interim government. There have been disturbances in Upper Egypt, the rejection of governor of -- in the Qena province and so on. There are also continued labor protests. There were some incidents of violence against protesters. So it's not back to normal yet, but I'm still optimistic about Egypt. As you know, there was a referendum on March 19 in which, for the first time in 50 or 60 years, there was a free and fair election in which millions of people's votes actually counted.
SHEHATAThere will be parliamentary elections in September, followed by presidential elections and a constitution drafted in the interim. So it's certainly not stable. There are issues that will be dealt with. There's economic issues as well that Egypt always faces, but I'm generally still optimistic about Egypt's democratic future.
REHMInteresting. All right, to Orlando, Fla. Good morning, Gina. You're on the air.
GINAYes. Assad has tried to appease the rebels by making some reforms. But it appears that whoever these protesters are and whatever forces are behind them are determined to bring down the government. This could be counterproductive to Syria's overall stability. Hypothetically, if our country were disrupted by hundreds of thousands of demanding rebels, wouldn't our government also be forced to stop these protesters with whatever means possible?
MELHEMWhose government would stop them?
MELHEMIt's not our job to stop them. Why should we stop them?
REHMNo, no. If it were to occur in this country.
MELHEMWell, in this country, you have laws and you have democratic government, you have representation, you have -- I mean, you can't compare. I mean, this is an autocratic regime, where the reaction to any hint of dissent or disagreement would be the use of force -- and not only force, brute force. And we've seen that happening. I mean, here we have a structure that is built on intimidation and coercion and violence, and that's the only way you can perpetuate a regime like that. I mean, most Arab regimes are autocratic regimes, most of them. But you cannot, of course -- I mean, they are not equal. I mean, you cannot say that, you know, Kuwait or Lebanon are like Algeria or Libya or even Bahrain.
MELHEMBut the Syrian people have every right to have a better future. And this government arrested the development of a country that was once vibrant, a country that boasts two great cities like Aleppo and Damascus. And the Syrians want their, you know -- their moment. Why should the Tunisians and the Egyptians have the chance to have a better future and get rid of their autocratic regimes and the Syrians don't?
REHMTell me what all of this turmoil means for Israel, Michele.
DUNNEIsrael is in a very uncomfortable position now. And I think if you, you know, have been listening to statements coming out of Israeli leaders and so forth, you've heard a lot of different things. I mean, recently, Prime Minister Netanyahu has been trying to sort of take a principal position and say, well, of course, Israel is in favor of democracy and human rights for people in Arab countries. But when it comes to the practical situation, I think it's very distressing. You know, there was a poll published just recently in Egypt, saying that most of the Egyptians polled would do away with the peace treaty with Israel. I mean, that -- I don't think -- realistically, that's not going to happen.
DUNNEBut there's a lot of Israeli concern about what is their cooperation with the new Egyptian government going to be like, particularly in Gaza, a critical area. I think there's a lot of concern about Syria because, frankly, the Syrian-Israeli border has been quiet. Golan has been very quiet for a long time. Certainly, they have their disagreements with Bashar al-Assad over Hezbollah and Hamas and his relationship with Iran and so forth, but, in a way, I think, the Israelis sort of quietly prefer the devil they know. And, furthermore, there's a whole debate inside of Israel about what this means about Israel's own conflict with the Palestinians.
DUNNEDoes this mean, in this changing environment, they should go ahead and cut a deal, you know, with the Palestinian leadership they currently have? Or does it mean that, in this atmosphere of insecurity, they should be more reluctant than ever to cut a deal?
REHMMichele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." There is a question here from Greensboro, N.C. Nicholas says, "If all this chaos in the Middle East eventually leads to more democracy, does the panel think this would push out theocratic extremists? Or would the people elect them and give them legal legitimacy?" Samer.
SHEHATAWell, I think that, certainly, democracy would tend to -- if institutions are in place and constitutions are in place and so on -- would tend to moderate politics. I don't think we are seeing in any of the countries that have witnessed significant transformation -- Tunisia, Egypt and so on, even in Yemen -- extremists of the Ayatollah Khomeini type emerging. I mean, these have been widespread popular movements by broad segments of the population -- women and men, young and old, secular and religious -- for Democratic change and reform. We haven't seen people calling for the imposition of an Islamic state and so on. Iran, as a model, has been widely discredited, even among Islamist movements across the region.
SHEHATAThat being said, however, there's no question that Islamist movements are going to play a role in these nations' future. There's no debate in Egypt about whether the Muslim Brotherhood should have the right to participate. That's accepted. It's simply a question of the proper role of Islam in the future state of Egypt, and the same goes for Tunisia and elsewhere.
REHMAnd last call from Jackson, Mich. Good morning, Michael.
MICHAELGood morning, Diane. My observation is that the last time we saw such widespread international upheaval -- if you want to call it that -- was in the fall of the Soviet Union. And I'd like your guests, if they would, to compare and contrast that. And the second part of the question would be our military sources -- resources in that area are at risk. Don't they have to basically take the role of observer and step in only when there's absolute necessity?
MELHEMWell, yeah, I mean, here we have a regional phenomena, similar to what happened in Eastern Europe, and we've seen events like that happen in Latin America at one time or even the 19th century Europe in, you know, Revolution of 1848. So there are regional realities, and Arabs have a lot in common -- their language, culture, similar experiences. And that's why they have been influenced by each other, and that's why sometimes the same slogans are repeated from one city to another, from one country to another. I would look at Eastern Europe and say that events are -- I mean, that the situation today is much, much better than, of course, when the Eastern Europe was under communist dictatorships.
MELHEMI'm still hopeful that what we've seen now in the Arab world is only the beginning, and the easiest part is the political change. What is more difficult is how you change mentality, how you change entrenched, you know, political and societal and behavioral, you know, ways of doing things. That will take time. There are entrenched interests, even in Egypt today or in Tunisia, who don't want that, to see a real change or to see a real democracy. So, you know, the tip of the pyramid in Egypt disappeared, but the structure that allowed Mubarak to rule for 30 years is essentially still intact. And you have to chip away at the culture that allowed this to continue, and the economic interest and the corruption and all that. So this is a long process...
MELHEM…and that's why it not only requires patience, but it requires fortitude and strategic planning.
REHMMichele, in a few seconds, what advice would you offer to the Obama administration?
DUNNEThe Obama administration should, I think, make clear where the United States stands. They keep equivocating a bit. I do think it's important for the United States to stand for democracy, human rights, so forth. That doesn't mean the United States is going to step in and change things in these countries. I actually kind of agree with President Obama, that it's important that any change of regime within these countries is done by the people themselves and is not done by outsiders. But we should make clear that what we stand for ultimately is that these people have the right and ability to choose their own governments.
REHMMichele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Hisham Melhem of Al-Arabiya and An-Nahar and Samer Shehata of Georgetown University, thank you all so much. And thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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