Coincidence? Middle East dictators crack down while world watches Japan


Yemenis protest against the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh after 32 years in power, in Sanaa on March 14, 2011.


Ahman Gharabli

As the world focuses on Japan, leaders in serveral Middle Eastern countries intensified their efforts to quell unrest and rebellion, raising questions over whether they were seizing the distraction presented by the tsunami and earthuake disaster to clean house.

In Yemen today, journalists from three leading Amercian newspapers were quickly ushered out of the country as the country's leader stepped up a violent crackdown on anti-government protesters.

Meanwhile, Saudi troops entered Bahrain in response to pro-democracy protests that turned violent over the weekend, threatening to overwhelm the ruling royal family's grip on power, the Guardian reported.

And in Libya, the government's troops pounded opposition rebels, claiming a psychological victory by pushing them from the eastern town of Brega under a hail of rockets.

Since Egypt and Tunisia saw their long-term leaders deposed under a wave of popular protest earlier this year, turmoil has spread across the region with tens of thousands rallying to bring about political change.

Facing scrutiny, criticism and possible intevention from the international community, several leaders had been slow to react, giving rise to unprecedented scenes of unrest or rebellion.

Now the tide seems to be turning as these embattled leaders unleash punishing crackdowns and seek to draw a veil over what is happening on the battlegrounds that have exploded on the streets of their cities.

The timing of this show of strength could simply be caused by leaders' mounting fears of losing power, or by the logistics of regrouping security forces to handle scenarios they have never been tested in.

But cynics could be forgiven for claiming a link between harsher tactics in the Middle East over the past few days and the situation in Japan where an earthquake, tsunami and potential nuclear disaster is diverting world attention and resources.

Yemeni troops were deployed across the capital Sanaa on Monday as the government tried to quell a new wave of protests against the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Reuters reported. It said there were reports of gunfire south of Sanaa.

The latest unrest came as the country deported without explanation journalists writing for three of America's biggest newspapers: the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post.

The two British and one American journalist -- plus an American researcher -- were expected to be put on planes to Dubai. One of the journalists said they'd been held for five hours before being told to pack their bags and leave.

Another Western journalist still working in Yemen said there were fears that the deportation marked the beginning of a round-up of the few foreigners still reporting from the country. Officials were no longer issuing journalist permits to foreigners.

In Bahrain, more than 1,000 Saudi troops have crossed the spit of land linking the two countries, AFP reported. The soldiers were described by Saudi officials as belonging to the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, AP said.

The New York Times said anti-government protesters, who continue to occupy streets in the Bahrani capital, decried the Saudi force as an "overt occupation" and a "conspiracy against the unarmed people of Bahrain."

Their arrival came a day after protests by Shia demonstrators against the Sunni ruling elite that the Times said was "the most serious challenge to the royal family since the protests began."

While the tragedy in Japan has dominated headlines, neither the situation in Bahrain or Yemen has escaped international attention. The White House on Sunday criticized the violence and called for a more measured response.

"We urge the governments of these countries to show restraint, and to respect the universal rights of their people," it said in a statement. "We urge the government of Bahrain to pursue a peaceful and meaningful dialogue with the opposition rather than resorting to the use of force."

Likewise, western powers continue to debate whether to impose a no-fly zone over Libya to curb leader Muammar Gaddafi's air assaults on rebels and civilians. But with analysts saying time is running out for the opposition, there will be questions over whether the events in Japan could prolong deliberations.

The rebels have repeatedly called for an aerial blockade to aid their cause, but despite support from countries including Britain and France and the Arab League, divided opinion has pushed to the decision to the United Nations Security Council, where China and Russia oppose intervention.

Without it, Gaddafi will be free to use warplanes alongsiden its artillery, tanks and rockets to make up for ground troop shortcomings that have seen his forces struggle to hold towns and territory captured by the rebels, AP said.