Revolutions have a tendency of going viral. In 1848, a French contagion engulfed most of Europe. Led by Egypt, much of Africa and the Middle East decolonised and toppled their western-backed regimes in the 1950s and 60s. In 1989, Poland showed Eastern Europe how to cast off its Soviet yoke. Similarly, the cusp of 2010-11 will be remembered as the winter of Arab discontent. The revolutionary spark that began in Tunisia has turned into a beacon in Egypt. Popular protests have spread across the Arab world — from Morocco in the west, to Bahrain in the east.
Tunisia and Egypt have yet only seen a change at the top. Though this is significant, their respective militaries have so far ringed-off most of the ruling regime itself. Whether the political system that emerges is a genuine people’s democracy or the continuation of a form of military-backed rule, remains to be seen. The only country where it can reasonably be predicted that the regime will collapse more or less completely, is Libya. And Bahrain is the only country where it is equally reasonable to forecast that the regime will be able to maintain itself with only cosmetic changes.
Libyan President Colonel Muammar Qaddafi responded to demonstrations in his country with an iron fist. His soldiers set upon protesters with heavy weapons and even fighter jets, hoping to further extend the veil of fear that has gripped Libya for decades. Qaddafi’s brutal tactics backfired. The military decisively split, with some units going over to the protesters along with their weapons, from small arms to armoured brigades. Simultaneously, the system of tribal manipulation that guaranteed Qaddafi’s longevity has fallen away. Many major tribes have now turned against Qaddafi, though, for now, he still holds the support of his own clansmen, the Qadhadfa, centred on the capital Tripoli. Qaddafi’s butchery has morphed formerly peaceful protesters into armed rebels. They are now closing in on Tripoli, where Qaddafi still commands enough troops, mercenaries and tribal loyalty to put up a bloody fight.
The situation in Bahrain unfolded very differently. Even before violence flared up in Libya, the Bahraini security forces had fired on protesters. Being an important American ally, Bahrain was susceptible to international and American pressure, and the protesters were allowed to re-congregate in the central Pearl Square. But security forces have already sent a strong signal of where they stand — firmly with the regime. This is where Bahrain’s political and sectarian dynamics come into play. About 70 per cent of Bahrainis are Shia and are heavily discriminated against. The ruling regime — coalesced around the royal family that has ruled Bahrain since 1783 — is Sunni. All military and security services, particularly at the highest levels, comprise of Sunnis. Where there are not enough Bahrainis to go around, the intelligence and security apparatus is stocked with personnel from Pakistan or Sunni Arab countries.
The sectarian divide in Bahrain has created a situation where security forces are unsure what axes the Shias will grind if they are granted substantial democratic concessions. Therefore, unlike Libya, Egypt or Tunisia, they will be far less inclined to mutiny. Some changes will come through negotiations between the regime and the protesters. But they will be largely contained because no cracks have appeared within the regime itself. This has been key in all revolutions thus far. The regimes mired in infighting or crises of succession have quickly become brittle. But there will be no lightening revolutions where this is not the case. Here, change will require a more tempered process of building organisational vehicles capable of bridging differences. Otherwise, the regime will ultimately survive.
Still, after being frozen in time for decades, many wondered whether any real political change in the Middle East was possible. The question now is not whether there will be change, but how far-reaching it will be.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 28th, 2011.