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Hard-line approach to Arab unrest intensifies

By Phil Gast, CNN
  • Unrest grows in Yemen and Bahrain
  • Tribal differences are significant in Libya
  • Citizens are pressing for reforms

(CNN) -- Determined to hang on to power, governments in Arab countries have turned to mercenaries, allies and even the destruction of a giant monument as means of quelling public demands for change.

And while Yemen, Bahrain and Libya have vastly different circumstances, the growing crackdowns share some characteristics, experts said Friday.

"What they have in common is that they are autocratic regimes not responsive to popular input," said John Pike, director of, a public policy organization.

Another analyst said the strong use of force may reflect an even more primal reality.

"The Middle East has no model of people losing power and staying alive in their country," said Daniel Serwer, a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

In Bahrain, the Sunni royal family has turned to the Gulf Cooperation Council, an association of six Gulf Arab states, to assist its crackdown on protesters.

The kingdom and Saudi Arabia are worried about the potential for Iran to influence Bahrain's Shiite Muslim majority. And the Saudis worry that unrest could encourage its Shiite minority, which lives among its vital oil fields.

"The Gulf Cooperation Council has been transformed into a regime protection organization," says Christopher Boucek, an associate in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank.

"The Saudis think this [unrest in Bahrain] is a threat to their stability," Boucek told CNN Friday.

Serwer said he does not believe the Iranians are actively fomenting trouble in Bahrain, an island nation east of Saudi Arabia.

Security forces in Bahrain on Friday demolished the Pearl Monument, a landmark that had been the site of massive recent anti-government protests.

The government explained the demolition by saying it was done "out of the government's keenness to optimize services and improve the infrastructure" and that it would "boost flow of traffic in this vital area of the capital," according to the state-run Bahrain News Agency.

The U.S. State Department Friday called on Bahraini security forces to cease violence and protesters to "engage peacefully and responsibly."

"As we have previously noted, a solution to Bahrain's problems will not be found through security measures," said State Department spokesman Mark Toner. "We reiterate our call for a peaceful and broadly inclusive political dialogue."

Amnesty International on Thursday accused Bahrain of using shotguns, tear gas and rubber bullets to subdue protesters, joining a growing chorus of concerns over the crackdown. Moderates have demanded a constitutional monarchy, and hard-liners have called for the abolition of the country's royal family altogether.

Observers were somewhat surprised Friday by the ferocity of clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces in Yemen. At least 40 people were killed and more than 100 were reported injured, medical officials said.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh said a state of emergency had been declared, and he expressed his "deep regret" over the casualties.

Analysts cite vanishing oil and water resources and drug use among Yemeni citizens as factors in the country's decline. High unemployment fuels much of the anger among a growing young population steeped in poverty. The protesters also cite government corruption and a lack of political freedom.

Yemen has been a failed state for some time, said Pike. "I think it's falling apart anyway."

Before Friday, Saleh had done a reasonable job of keeping protesters and security forces separated, said Boucek.

Now it appears that 2013 elections may have to be moved up and compromises made, Boucek said.

Saleh, who has refused to step down, has said he will not run again for the presidency. He has ruled Yemen for 32 years.

Serwer said he is surprised Saleh has held on as long as he has.

"He is a tribal leader who has made deals," said Serwer. "He is running out of deals."

The Arab regimes looked at the rapid departures of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and decided to take a more forceful approach to opposition, Serwer said.

"This is part of a movement of cracking down, cracking heads and putting it [unrest] back in the box," according to Serwer.

The experts told CNN that divisions within Libya run deeper, with no state apparatus behind Moammar Gadhafi.

Serwer said it's no surprise that anti-Gadhafi forces and the regime have been engaged in bloody battles.

The country, he says, has immense oil resources and an economic disparity between east and west. "No one has seen a dime of it except for Gadhafi and his relatives."

Serwer said countries with monarchies have an advantage: They can blame a civilian government and fire ministers.

Saudi Arabia, he said, is unhappy with the United States because it is no longer backing autocrats.

Yemen, Libya and Bahrain have tried to impose fear among their populations, Serwer said, but recent events in Bahrain typify what can happen.

"With every violent act, they are stepping away from being able to survive," Serwer said.

CNN's Mohammed Jamjoom and Leone Lakhani contributed to this report.