Many took the US turn away from Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak as a bellwether of the world’s most powerful democracy’s support of their own democratic aspirations. Repressive rulers wondered if they too would go the way of Egypt. This is still a possibility. Success, however, will come despite the US, rather than because of it.
The US position on the pro-democracy movements sweeping the region has been based on its own strategic interests. In Egypt, it played midwife to military rule, hoping to preserve the basic structure of the Egyptian political system. Egypt’s ruling military council has already promised continuity in foreign policy. In Libya, the US has —rightly — supported a UN ‘no fly/drive zone’. But like Tunisia, Libya, despite its oil wealth, is on the periphery of American strategic concern. What is good for the Maghreb is, evidently, not good enough for the Arabian Peninsula. Despite the wholesale killingof protesters, the US has not asked Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to resign, ostensibly fearing jihadist sanctuaries growing in the resultant power vacuum. Nor has it called on Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa to step down.
Bahrain is virtually an apartheid state — a Sunni regime dominates and heavily discriminates against the majority Shia population. Thus, the democratic reforms sought by the protesters gain added legitimacy and urgency. Regardless, on March 11, US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates paid a visit to Bahrain’s capital of Manama, the site of the largest protests. A highlevel visit at such a time sent just the right signals to the Bahraini regime. Even though Gates trotted the requisite sound bites urging democratic reform, he highlighted that dealing with instability quickly was paramount to keep Iran from gaining a foothold on the Persian Gulf’s western littoral. On cue, the Gulf Cooperation Council dispatched troops to Bahrain to quellthe protests. The largest contingentis the 1,000-strong Saudi Arabian National Guard, a staunchly loyal force totalling 150,000 troops, trainedto maintain internal security and safeguard the Saudi regime. Further, Pakistan’s Fauji Foundation (an army-run welfare trust and business conglomerate) has been recruiting hundreds of Pakistani ex-servicemen into the Bahraini National Guard. A ‘state of emergency’ (read martial law) has been declared in Bahrain, giving troops untrammelled authority to deal with the protesters. As the world focuses on Libya, Saudi troops have used tanks and live ammunition to disperse protesters and beat demonstrators in hospital beds. Hundreds are reported wounded, a dozen are dead and many more simply disappeared. At 1.2 million, the population of all of Bahrain is a sixth of that of Cairo alone. Marching in enough boots could effectively squelch the unrest.
Activists, intellectuals and Shia malcontents in Saudi Arabia have been attempting to organise similar protests. Bahrain clearly demonstrates to them that they are isolated and can expect no support from the international community that is spurring on the revolutions in North Africa.
Though Iran’s star has been rising across the region, even Gates admitted it has no evident political links to Shia groups in Bahrain. Yet the US and regimes of the Arabian Peninsula have found a new bogeyman to protect their interests. They say Iran will be able to use a Shia-dominated Bahrain to strengthen control of the Persian Gulf and destabilise Saudi Arabia, where Shias make up about 20 per cent of the population, but sit on the oil-rich eastern marches. But by refusing legitimate demands in the region and violently clamping down on largely peaceful protests, there is a real risk of vindicating those that have thus far been marginalised in the Middle East’s people’s movements: The ultra radicals and Islamists advocating armed struggle and terrorism. And there is the danger of sectarian strife and a proxy Saudi-Iranian war reigniting across the region, from Pakistan in the east to Lebanon in the west. The stakes in Bahrain could not be higher.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 22nd, 2011.