Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

What is Wrong with Bahrain?

A few weeks after the Jasmine Revolution started in Tunisia, the region is reeling with disorder, especially Bahrain. Let's call a spade a spade: the Bahraini government messed up big time, given how its forces and supporters beat the protesters. At the same time, the Saudis exacerbated the situation by sending in troops. A month after that, the Bahrain government did something very idiotic by deciding to persecute Mansoor al-Jamri, the editor of Al Wasat, the country's most popular newspaper.

In the meantime, the opposition and the protesters themselves somehow managed to be dragged into the discourse of Shias vs. Sunnis, threatening the Sunnis minorities who ganged up with the government as a result. So instead of creating a pluralistic mass movement to demand reforms, the opposition managed to place themselves in a corner, and thus were easily branded as Iranian agents.

So, what happened here? First, the Bahraini government did everything wrong. They cracked down on the protesters, which only hardened their views. Then after the government stepped back, the encouraged opposition blundered by doubling down, refusing to compromise. Finally, the government hit back, supported by the Saudis.

Had the government just hit hard from the beginning, the situation would be bad, but not as bad as today. On the other hand, had the government compromised, Bahrain might have become the first stable pluralistic constitutional monarchy in the Middle East, as I believed that the Shiites were willing to tolerate a Sunni Sultanate as long as they got some voice in the decision-making process. The erratic responses, however, gave a hope that the government was willing to accommodate and thus when the second repression hit, Shiites' resentment increased dramatically.

The persecution of Mansoor al-Jamri, a symbol of moderation in Bahrain, inflamed the situation further. At this point, I am willing to bet that the Shiites will no longer tolerate a Sultanate that see as oppressive, not willing to compromise, and anti-Shiite. Moderation doesn't work. The situation has deteriorated so much that it will lead to further discord and possibly civil war.

One force behind the blunders is the pressure from the Saudis who are deathly afraid about Iran, as well as the possibility that its own Shiites minorities will rise in revolt. The Saudis, thanks to its Wahhabi-style of Islam, failed to accommodate and to integrate the Shiites to the society, resulting in the estrangement of the Shiites from the Saudis and at the same time, increasing the fears of the Saudis that these Shiites would act as the fifth pillar, taking orders from Tehran. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. With Bahrain in turmoil, the Saudis decided to strike, even though there was no indication of Iran's influence on the protesters at all.

At the same time, Iran is busy with its own dissidents, not to mention popular dissatisfaction with Ahmadinejad's regime. Iran's economy has been in turmoil due to embargoes and mismanagement, and Ahmadinejad needs something to distract the population. Bahrain and the Saudis basically have handed Ahmadinejad the rallying flag he desperately needs.

This turns a small protest movement into a regional crisis.

In the meantime, Obama fiddled, preoccupied with his visits to South America, and later, the budget battle against the Republicans, and managed to tarnish the credibility of the U.S. as the defender of democratic values. To add insult to injury, on February 15, Obama warned Iran not to use force against protesters and yet did nothing about the Saudis' invasion and Bahrain's violent crackdowns on its population. If the U.S. was convinced that they needed to influence the hearts and minds of the people of the Middle East, Obama badly squandered the opportunities.

What could Obama have done? Well, of course, he messed up from the beginning, notably on his treatment of Mubarak, which I mentioned a few weeks ago. This time, however, Obama should pressure the Bahrainis, or at least use the US troops there to help stabilize the situation: to protect the protesters while at the same time, to police the city. It may cost some U.S. lives (sadly), however, the stake is very high. It is imperative to act as a honest broker. Both the Bahrain and the Saudi governments might not like this solution, but compared to handing the Shiites on a silver platter to Iran, that is a much better alternative.

In the meantime, the Bahraini government must stop the crackdown. It is useless and backfiring, destroying any shred of credibility and legitimacy the Sultanate has over its population. The government must free al-Jamri and other opposition figures that it arrested. The U.S. should pressure the Bahrainis on this count.

The entire mess is not caused by the ancient hatred between the Sunnis and Shiites. They have been living together for centuries since the split and managed to get along pretty well. The entire mess is caused by  idiotic governments filled with old autocrats who had to rely on fundamentalists for their fig leaves of legitimacy. Had the Bahrain and the Saudi governments been able to treat the Shiites with respect that they deserve, they wouldn't need not to worry about the Iranian influences.

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