As turmoil persists, Mideast leaders bow to pressure

Bahrain frees 100 political prisoners; Saudis enact economic reforms; Jordan loosens protest rules.

February 24, 2011 02:34
Bahrain protests

Bahrain protests520. (photo credit: Associated Press)

Thousands of anti-government protesters marched to Manama’s Pearl Square on Wednesday after Bahrain’s king released at least 100 political prisoners, an acknowledgment by the Sunni ruler of the mounting pressure being placed on him by the Shi’ite opposition.

The inmates included 25 Shi’ite activists on trial since last year for plotting against the state. Their release underlined how much the absolute rulers of the Gulf kingdom, a close ally of Washington, want to get reform talks with protest leaders under way. The release was one of the major demands of the emboldened political movement seeking constitutional reform.

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Although the event was smaller than a 100,000-strong protest that flooded downtown Manama on Tuesday, the march was politically significant in a country where the imprisonments were not publicly discussed.

Bahrain’s authorities said in an e-mail that 308 prisoners had been released from custody on Wednesday. However, the president of Bahrain’s Center for Human Rights, Nabeel Rajab, said only about 100 of those people were political prisoners, while at least 300 remain in detention.

Rajab speculated that the other inmates who were let go may have been criminals being held on nonpolitical charges.

Amid concerns that the island nation’s uprising could spread to Saudi Arabia, where the monarchy permits few political freedoms, Bahrain state media reported that King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa was holding talks on the unrest with the Saudi king in Riyadh.

Like tiny Bahrain, OPEC heavyweight Saudi Arabia also has a significant Shi’ite population that has long complained of oppression by Sunni rulers. Shi’ites far outnumber Sunnis in Bahrain, which has just 525,000 residents.

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For its part, the Saudi regime on Wednesday nearly doubled a development fund that helps citizens buy homes, get married and start businesses, and the kingdom set up unemployment assistance for the first time. These steps, reported by state television, were apparently aimed at shoring up popular support and fending off the unrest that has spread to neighboring Bahrain.

The steps came as new signs of the undercurrent of discontent in the kingdom appeared to be bubbling to the surface.

A Facebook page calling for a “March 11 Revolution of Longing” in Saudi Arabia has begun attracting hundreds of viewers. A message posted on the page calls for “the ousting of the regime” and lists demands, including allowing for the election of a ruler and members of the advisory assembly known as the Shura Council.

Saudi Arabia – where King Abdullah and thousands of royals are largely untouchable – has been mostly spared the unrest that is rippling through the Arab world. But Bahrain became the first nation in the Gulf to experience the region’s anti-government upheavals that are linked to poverty as well as demands for more political freedom.

Showing how deep the concern is, Abdullah ordered that 40 billion riyals ($10.7b.) be pumped into the country’s development fund, which provides interest-free loans to Saudis who want to build homes, get married or start small businesses.

In Jordan, the cabinet has approved laws making it easier to organize protests, and will revive a government body that works to ensure basic commodities remain affordable to the poor.

A government official said the reforms were passed late on Tuesday.

They came hours after the country’s largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, vowed to resume demonstrations pushing for reforms.

The situation has been less volatile in Jordan than elsewhere in the region, but people have still been protesting to curb the king’s powers.

The government official said organizers would need only to inform authorities 48 hours in advance of protests to assure protection of the public.

In Egypt, state television said a former prime minister and cabinet minister had been banned from leaving the country, a move that is often the prelude to a criminal investigation and a possible trial. It said Egypt’s top prosecutor on Wednesday banned Atef Obeid, prime minister from 2001 to 2004, as well as long-serving Culture Minister Farouq Hosni from traveling abroad. The ban also covers the head of state TV and radio and nine prominent businessmen.

The bans are the latest move by Egypt’s military rulers against stalwarts of the administration of ousted president Hosni Mubarak and businessmen associated with his regime.

France said it would moving forward with efforts to freeze any assets held in the country by Mubarak and his family. Egypt’s top prosecutor is seeking a freeze on assets belonging to Mubarak, his wife, his two sons and their wives. The Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday it had received an Egyptian request for such a freeze a day earlier.

It was not immediately clear what assets Mubarak might have in France. Switzerland has said it is freezing any assets of former Egyptian officials, and US authorities have sought to track money linked to possibly corrupt deals by Mubarak’s government.

In Yemen, thousands streamed into a square in the capital, Sanaa, on Wednesday, trying to strengthen the hold of anti-government protesters after club-wielding backers of President Ali Abdullah Saleh tried to drive them out.

One person was killed and at least 12 were wounded in the clashes late on Tuesday near Sanaa University, medics said. A local human rights group gave a higher toll, saying two people had been killed and 18 had been hurt.

Also on Wednesday, seven legislators from Saleh’s ruling party resigned because of the situation in the country and said they would be forming their own independent bloc, member of parliament Abdul-Aziz Jabbari said. The resignations raise to nine the number of legislators who have left Saleh’s Congress Party since protests began earlier this month.

In Algeria, the president’s office agreed on Tuesday to lift a 19-year state of emergency in a bid to defuse spiraling discontent across the nation.

The office of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika said the president had approved a government decision earlier in the day to lift the restrictive measure, put in place by the army in February 1992 to combat Islamist terrorists.

The brief statement said the change was “imminent,” but gave no date.

Iran’s president warned on Wednesday that the wave of protests sweeping the Middle East would spread to Europe and North America. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said popular demand for change would put an end to the oppression by “arrogant powers.” Without singling out nations by name, he said similar uprisings would strike Europe and North America.

Speaking on state TV, the president also condemned Libya’s use of force against demonstrators and urged Libyan leaders to give in to the demands of their people.

Iran’s hard-line leaders have sought to claim some credit for the uprisings in Arab nations, saying the 1979 Islamic Revolution provided the inspiration for them.

Iran brutally put down protests on its own streets after Ahmadinejad’s disputed reelection in 2009.

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