Despite security police efforts to dislodge them, anti-government protesters continued to occupy the main square of Manama, Bahrain Tuesday night, Feb. 15, even after its ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa made a rare television appearance to regret the two deaths and promised a full investigation.
Wednesday, first protests were reported in Libya, starting in Benghazi, where eyewitnesses report
police responded to stone-throwers with water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets.
In Yemen, security forces stayed on alert after five days of disturbances by protesters demanding President Ali Abdullah Saleh's removal from power although he promised not to run again when his term ends in 2013. Wednesday saw, security forces in Jordan and the army in Syria on high alert.
Saudi Arabia is especially alarmed by the swelling protest in its small but strategic neighbor, Bahrain, site of US Fifth Fleet headquarters for the Gulf region. For the first time, Sunni Muslims joined the majority Shiite protest against the rule of the Al Khalifas who have been in power since 1971. debkafile discloses that shortly before dawn Wednesday, Feb. 16, the Bahraini king secretly asked the Saudis for riot dispersal gear for his security forces to break up the protests. He also asked Saudi Arabia to place its security forces on the ready in case they got out of hand.
Riyadh had already taken action out of fear that its own large Shiite minority in the eastern oil-rich regions of the kingdom catch fire from Bahrain. Tuesday, security and military forces were rushed to those regions and security stepped up at the oil facilities and ports of eastern Saudi Arabia, most of which are manned by Shiites who are close to their coreligionists over the bridge in Bahrain.
To the north, Jordan too was rocked by serious street protests, a serious menace to the throne because they are staged with increasing intensity by indigenous Bedouin tribes, the traditional backbone of the Hashemite royal house. Overnight, armed tribesmen blocked Highway No. 1, the main road into the capital Amman, demanding the restoration of lands, which they claim were stolen from them over the years by the royal family and the Jordanian government.
Last week, 36 Bedouin tribal chieftains sent a letter to King Abdullah II with demands that he cede some of his prerogatives including the right to appoint prime ministers and ministers and cut down on extravagant royal spending, especially by Queen Rania, when more money should be diverted to helping the poor.
Unrest against the Jordanian king has been simmering for weeks posing his rule with a double problem.
For now, the Bedouins are making the most noise while the Muslim Brotherhood and the majority Palestinian population are biding their time, waiting to jump in when the see the first crack in the royal stand against the disturbances.
The second problem is more serious. The Jordanian army consists of Bedouin fighters belonging to the same tribes as the protesters out on the streets. The royal security services have the same makeup. A crackdown against the demonstrations could spark a wholesale Bedouin mutiny against the Hashemite royal house or even the first Bedouin coup against a Jordanian monarch.
debkafile's intelligence sources say that this peril and a range of responses were discussed Saturday, February 12, when US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen visited Amman and met King Abdullah. Mullen also discussed the situation in Jordan, Israel's second peace partner, with Israel leaders Sunday and Monday (February 13-14). Tuesday night, US President Barack Obama warned "autocratic rulers" that they cannot maintain their hold on power through coercion and force and must recognize the "world is changing."
In Syria, too, although President Bashar Assad Tuesday put on a big show of unconcern by mingling unescorted among a crowd of affectionate admirers in Damascus, the situation is very tense. Early Wednesday, he placed Syrian security forces and the army on high alert in readiness for the Day of Anger called for Friday, Feb. 18, by opposition organizations, including the Muslim Brotherhood. After Syrian intelligence received word that it was planned to be the most serious attempt to date to shake the dynastic Assad regime, police and security strength in Syrian cities were beefed up. Heavy reinforcements were moved into the Kurdish areas of the north, where the most violent protests are anticipated.
Assad has adopted the Iranian tactic of exerting maximum force to break up crowds as they form and giving security forces a free hand to open fire with live ammunition without having to ask for permission.
An earlier Syrian opposition demonstration attempt – Saturday February 5 – was quickly nipped in the bud by the preponderance of security forces in the streets. A small demonstration of several hundred took off in the northeastern town of Hasaka but nowhere else.
debkafile's sources say this coming Friday may be different: Opposition groups in the universities, and among the Sunnis, Kurds and Palestinians, are all gearing up for a large turnout in Damascus.