Middle East

Fear in Libya, hope in Bahrain

Protesters in Manama's Pearl Square, Bahrain - 20 February 2011
Image caption First Bahrain's rulers tried force against protesters, then decided to go for talks

A wave of protests has been rocking states from the Gulf to North Africa. But whereas Bahrain's royal family has backed off from violently confronting the protesters, Libya's security forces are reported to have killed dozens of people. The BBC's diplomatic affairs correspondent Bridget Kendall looks at the different approaches.

A few days ago it was tempting to view the ripples of unrest as part of a pattern: Inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, an unfolding of large-scale public challenges to jittery rulers who ordered troops to fire on crowds in an attempt to keep the lid on.

But now it is clear that, in Bahrain and Libya at least, the paths are dramatically diverging.

In Bahrain troops have been withdrawn, jubilant demonstrators feel empowered and a dialogue has - it seems - begun with the ruling royal family.

Probably critical here has been not just Bahrain's image of itself as a modern, relatively liberal Middle Eastern country, but the extent of outside influence.

US President Obama and other top American officials have been on the phone to the monarchy in Bahrain, as has British Foreign Secretary William Hague, all urging a peaceful solution.

Uncompromising Gaddafi

This is very different from Libya where an information blockade has tried to keep the world at bay, and the scale of bloodshed unleashed by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's troops on the rebellious eastern city of Benghazi is only just emerging.

After four decades years of rigid rule, the defiance of protesters on Libyan streets, in parts of the country at least, in the last few days has been unprecedented.

Image caption Video released on the internet has purportedly shown protests and the ensuing crackdown in Libya

But so too has been the ferocity of the government's response: The bloodiest crackdown from any regime in the last few weeks' extraordinary saga of Middle East turmoil.

"Horrifying" and "unacceptable" was how Mr Hague described Britain's latest reaction. He said the world should not hesitate to condemn the Libyan government's actions, and he would urge other European and Arab countries to speak out also.

But exerting the same kind of external pressure on Mr Gaddafi that seems to have worked on Bahrain may be difficult.

The Libyan colonel has years of experience of being an international pariah and of running a harsh regime that does not tolerate criticism.

What is more, the demands of protesters in Libya seem to leave little room for compromise.

Whereas in Bahrain the main goal seems to have been to get rid of the prime minister and introduce more reforms rather than oust the entire royal family, in Libya the disaffected crowds quite simply want Col Gaddafi to go. It is very personal.

So to save his skin and his regime, he is unlikely to shrink from more violence. He will doubtless see whatever harsh measures are needed as his only option.