Full house: Playing Bahrain’s sectarian card
By Mark LeVine*
Almost eight years to the day after the United States invaded Iraq, I never thought I’d see this sight: Saudi troops rolling through the capital of Bahrain the way Americans rolled through Baghdad.
Rhetorically, the difference between the two invasions couldn’t be greater. The goal of “Operation Iraqi Freedom” was to liberate Iraq from the “grip of the dictator Saddam Hussein”, while the stated reason for the Saudis entering Bahrain was to “safeguard security and stability”.
But the reality of the two occupations are, at base, the same – as will be their results. The Saudis occupying Bahrain under cover of the “GCC” is like US invading Iraq under cover of the “Coalition of the Willing” – both will end in disaster, as is becoming more evident by the minute.
Whatever the intentions or rationales, when you bring foreign troops onto another country’s soil, “freedom”, “security” and “stability” almost always turn into violence, oppression, and chaos.
It doesn’t matter whether its American and NATO troops doing the invading and occupying, or Israel occupying Palestine, Egypt being asked to come to the aid of the newly establish Yemen Arab Republic half a century ago, or Saudi and GCC troops being invited in by a nervous Bahraini monarch today.
With the entry of such troops comes the dehumanisation of the target population that always makes peace and progress impossible to achieve. And so in Iraq in 2004 the US army invaded hospitals, while today it is GCC troops doing so in contravention of international law, never mind human decency.
Not the reboot Obama wanted
If we are to believe that president Obama would actually like to see democracy flower in the Middle East, then the Saudi entrance into Bahrain and the subsequent launch of a full scale military assault on peaceful protesters can only be viewed as a demonstration of the United States’ increasing weakness – “irrelevance” is the word increasingly used by people here-vis-a-vis its regional clients.
The recent events can only be understood as a direct challenge, and indeed, a slap in the face, of the president and his most senior advisers, who publicly urged restraint and yet were forced to declare that the move into Bahrain was “not an invasion”.
Either that, or defence secretary Gates, and through him the president, were fully briefed on the immanent invasion and did nothing to try to prevent it.
Perhaps with the Obama administration’s nuclear power dreams literally going up in radioactive smoke, keeping the Saudis and other petroleum kings happy remains the overwhelming foreign policy concern of the United States, regardless of the abstract desire for greater democracy and human rights in the region.
As Al Jazeera’s Patty Culhane pointed out after the latest White House briefing: “The US doesn’t have any leverage over Saudi Arabia. Nothing…will slow down an economic recovery faster than a huge spike in gas prices.”
In other words, American foreign policy and the struggle for human rights and dignity in the Middle East are now at the complete mercy of one of the world’s most repressive regimes.
Somehow I doubt this is what Obama had in mind when he declared his desire to reboot the relationship with the Muslim world in Cairo back in 2009.
But what else should he have expected if his “new beginning” was limited to “mutual interest and mutual respect” between governments, and not people, amounting to a policy of non-interference that could only be interpreted by governments as a license to do whatever they want, even when US troops are stationed on their soil.
Did he actually think that uttering a few nice words would magically lead to Middle Eastern governments behaving more justly towards their peoples?
Two years later, does secretary of state Clinton actually believe her celebratory words as she walked through through Tahrir Square yesterday will assuage the anger at decades of (and sadly, continued) US support for authoritarianism in the region?
Even if we give Clinton and Obama the benefit of the doubt, it is a sign of how radically the position of the US has changed since the 1990s, and even since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, that eight years ago it was the Saudis who were forced to acquiesce to an invasion from which they had little to gain, while today it is the United States that seems to be in the position of accepting a fait accompli by the Saudis, who drove across the border only two days after secretary of defence Robert Gates was in Bahrain attempting to convince the Bahraini leadership to engage in a more rapid process of dialogue and reform.
Deep roots, but no Tahrir Square
Pro-democracy Bahrainis have certainly been inspired by the Tunisian and closer-by Egyptian revolutions.
Many of the qualities in Tahrir were evident in the Pearl, at least until the latest assault began: The feeling of fear outside the protester-controlled area versus the sense of determination within, the innumerable tents, the people cutting up onions to protect against tear gas (sadly, they offered no protection against live ammunition), the speeches encouraging nervous yet steadfast protesters, medics on the ready, and various organisations, such as the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, and student and activist groups, taking testimony from those arrested, beaten or shot by security forces, helping to develop the burgeoning public sphere.
Also as in Egypt, the pro-democracy movement has developed over a long period.
One of the most visible human rights advocates, Nabeel Rajab, of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, is a businessman who’s been active in human rights for over a decade.
A younger colleague to whom he introduced me became active about five years ago, after growing disgusted with how the government treated member of the pro-democracy movement. The majority of protesters, like their Egyptian or Tunisian counterparts, are more recent converts to the cause.
But these protests have a deeper history, going back to a wave of protests beginning in 1994 that was unique in its time for the level of cooperation between religious, secular and leftist/labour forces.
Similar to today, among the main demands were the reinstating of the 1973 constitution, the release of political prisoners, the granting of political rights to women, and the institution of economic reforms to raise the standard of living of the majority Shia population.
Also similar to the present moment, the government portrayed the protests as a purely sectarian Shia rebellion. The reality was that while the majority of activists were Shia (in keeping with the demographic balance of the larger population), many Sunnis were prominent among the protest leaders.
Perhaps putting the current unrest in perspective, the 1990s protests took more than half a decade and the ascent of a new leader, the current King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, to resolve themselves.
He undertook a series of measures that included the drafting of a National Action Charter whose aim, as he stated, was to help ensure the “people’s aspiration to a modern state that continues to enjoy security, stability and prosperity…freedom, equality, justice democracy and participation in governance by all.”
The means to achieve this were to be the solidification of a “democratic, constitutional monarchy under which the King serves his people.”
No way to build democracy
These goals were enshrined in a 2001 constitution which resulted in the election of a National Assembly. However, the opposition boycotted elections held the next year because a second body, an appointed Shura Council, was given equal powers to the elected lower chamber (meaning it could frustrate legislation or reforms enacted by elected representatives), even though the National Action Charter described its role as merely “advisory”.
The essential problem was that the king tried to have it both ways. And so the Charter declared his intention to “consecrate a stable democracy” through a separation of powers between the legislature, executive and judiciary. Yet in the next breath, he placed himself “at the helm of the three powers.”
Needless to say, such contradictions did not augur well for the rise of a democratic system. In the ensuing decade Bahrain has remained a state whose image of moderation and progress has been belied by systematic corruption and repression whenever the leadership felt its grip on power threatened.
There are several other crucial differences between the dynamic in Bahrain and in Egypt or Tunisia that help explain why Egyptians were able to topple Mubarak after 18 days while Bahraini protesters are being killed by security forces with impunity five weeks into the current protests.
The first is the lack of detailed preparations for the present revolt. Many of the techniques utilised by Egyptian revolutionaries were honed over the last half decade, in labour strikes, activist trainings, and yes, Facebook and other other social media forums. While Bahrain has its share of seasoned activists, there hasn’t been the same level of preparation as occurred in Egypt.
“You have to understand, we’re not used to this sort of thing here,” explained a young human rights activist, as I asked him about the still small, makeshift looking roadblocks through which we were walking to enter the Pearl a month after the protests started.
The price of political geography
As important is the sectarian split at the heart of Bahrain’s body politic.
It is well known that as much as seventy per cent of Bahraini citizens are Shia. While there are many Sunnis involved in the protests, including Islamists, intellectuals and activists, it is impossible to escape the reality that a true process of democratisation in the country would, as happened in South Africa, involve a massive shift in political and even economic power, from the Sunni minority to the Shia majority.
It’s hard to imagine how a Sunni king whose court has been responsible for marginalising and oppressing the majority Shia population for decades could ultimately continue to reign, never mind rule, in a truly democratic Bahrain.
In Egypt, there is increasing evidence that the Mubarak government encouraged and even organised Muslim violence against the minority Egyptian Coptic population in order to use the threat of even greater chaos to justify continued rule.
The logic of such a divide and rule tactic is even stronger in Bahrain, with its large Shia majority, a seemingly belligerent Iran nearby, and an anxious “big brother” Saudi Arabia, with its own restive Shia minority next door.
This reality helps explain why, even though protest organisers had a coherent set of goals from the start – including the drafting of a new constitution, the establishment of a fully democratic political system that ensures “freedom and justice”, and investigating government abuses and corruption – the government has succeeded in playing the sectarian card.
In so doing it has kept many liberal Sunnis who have suffered under the present system from fully embracing the protests. At least until it tossed the national unity card out the window by “inviting” in the Saudis.
The ends of mercenary power
Sadly, it seems that in order to achieve their goals Bahrain’s democracy, forces will have to pass through a test of fire closer to Libya’s than to Egypt or Tunisia’s.
Protesters in Cairo or Tunis safely bet that young Egyptian and Tunisian conscripts would not commit large scale violence against them even if ordered to by superiors. In Bahrain, however, the security and armed forces are almost entirely foreign.
Pakistanis (particularly Baluchis), Yemenis, Jordanians, Syrians and now Saudis and GCC troops seconded to the kingdom – Bahrain’s geography of repressive power is a confusing maze of nationalities, tribes and ethnic groups.
What unites them is the fact that they are entirely Sunni and have no compunction about harming and even killing Bahraini protesters at the command of their Bahraini paymasters (indeed, many receive Bahraini citizenship as a reward for their services).
Indeed, representatives from both local and major international human rights organisations specifically pointed out to me how Bahrain’s state controlled media has been putting out messages to the Sunni minority that “any democracy will be a danger for you because you’ll be killed by Shia.”
They have incited them against their Shia fellow citizens in a manner that one senior activist compared to the propaganda on Rwandan radio during the genocide.
Even social media like Facebook have been coopted to this task.
A friend called me as I drove through Manama to warn that he was receiving “vicious” Facebook messages declaring that soon “the Shia would get what they deserved”, while a group had formed, in his words, to prepare for the “end of time”.
At base, such fear are based on a vision of the country falling into a fratricidal civil war in which Tehran and Riyadh use Bahrain’s Shia and Sunnis as proxies in a war for control over the Persian/Arabian Gulf.
Such a scenario remains, we can hope, highly unlikely.
But with the Bahraini king abandoning any pretence of reform and the US, and other Western countries either powerless or uninterested in stopping the Saudi power play, Bahrain could well bleed for years to come, putting yet another stain on the inexorable if increasingly painful progress towards democratisation in the Arab world.
*Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.