The Failed Revolution

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Kristin Smith Diwan

Assistant Professor, American University School of International Service

The following was presented at the Middle East Policy Council’s round table discussion, “Governance, Human Rights and American Interests in Bahrain“, on Thursday, March 31st, 2011. Panelists also included H.E. Shaikh Abdulaziz bin Mubarak Alkhalifa, International media advisor, Information Affairs Authority for the Kingdom of Bahrain (see his statement) and Professor Stephen King, associate professor and comparative field chair at Georgetown University (see his remarks on the possibilities of constitutional monarchy). The discussion was moderated by Dr. Thomas Mattair, executive director at the Middle East Policy Council, and was attended by thirty Washington-based Middle East experts and journalists.

Unlike the successful or ongoing revolutions in North Africa, Bahrain’s revolt has been successfully repressed. Still the repercussion in reform deferred and sectarianism unleashed may be just as consequential for the Gulf and for America’s standing there.

In February the wave of Arab rebellions hit the shores of the Gulf in the tiny island nation of Bahrain. For several weeks pro-democracy activists took to the streets in overwhelmingly peaceful protests that brought the spirit of the Arab Spring to this critical oil-exporting subregion of the Middle East. Six weeks later the movement is in shambles with dozens of protestors killed, hundreds jailed, and many others in hiding. Saudi National Guard troops, part of a GCC Peninsula Shield Force invited into the country by the Bahraini ruling family to help put down the rebellion, remain in the country which is now officially under martial law.

The Bahrain uprising has ended not in revolution, nor reform, but in a wave of suppression and rising sectarianism. Why did Bahrainis join the Arab uprisings and why did they fail? And what are the consequences for the wider Gulf region and for the United States which bases the Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain?

The local context for the uprising was the mounting frustration over the stalled reforms initiated by the current King upon his assumption of power a decade ago. The symbolic date chosen by the protest movement – February 14th – marks the day when the King undermined the promise of a constitutional monarchy supported through his own National Action Charter by unilaterally amending the constitution to gut the power of the legislature. Since that time the ruling family has further undercut the democratic potential of its reforms by launching a sectarian campaign to decrease the representation of the Shia majority in parliament through gerrymandered districts and the strategic naturalizations of Sunnis to shift the demographic balance within the country. The inability of the mainstream Shia Islamist opposition to achieve significant concessions in exchange for ending its political boycott and participating in the parliament from 2006 led many Bahrainis to conclude that engagement with the government was futile and that gains would only come by taking to the street.

The revolutionary mood of the Arab Spring thus found deep resonance in Bahrain. The protestors were clearly inspired by the pro-democracy movements that successfully ousted the authoritarian rulers in Tunisia and Egypt, and sought to emulate their methods. The protests were initiated through a call for a “Day of Rage” issued via Facebook. They quickly set up a strategic base in the Pearl Roundabout in the heart of the city which became Bahrain’s Tahrir square: an incubator for generating ideas and realizing the new civil society the protestors hoped to achieve. Key to this was the understanding that protests needed to overcome the politics of division, especially critical in Bahraini politics where the sectarian divide between the Shia majority and the Sunni minority has been systematically accentuated by the Sunni ruling family in order to maintain its hegemony. Thus the protestors organized joint prayers of Sunni and Shia and symbolically reached out to the largely Sunni pro-monarchy National Unity Alliance by forming a human chain to their base at the Fatih mosque. They framed their appeal in national terms and avoided narrow sectarian demands.

The protestors inherited something else from Tunisia and Egypt: elevated expectations. Many of the youthful protestors leading the rallies in the Pearl roundabout and beyond believed that if they held to their demands they could drive the al-Khalifa from power; after all, President Mubarak of Egypt had resigned only days before the Bahrain protests began. Support for revolution gained more traction after the deadly government assault on sleeping protestors in the Pearl roundabout. And while still a minority position, it found voice through the leadership of the boycott wing of the political spectrum – represented by al-Haq and al-Wafa’ – who formally called for the establishment of a democratic republic in Bahrain.

The seven mainstream opposition political societies – headed by the Shia Islamist al-Wefaq and the co-sectarian leftist nationalist al-Wa’ad – had long pursued a strategy of incremental reform. Yet they did not launch the protests and could never exert full control over them. Their attempts to leverage the energy of the protest movement behind negotiations to achieve the substantial constitutional reforms they championed failed, despite the fact that these reforms would have satisfied the majority of the protestors and could have garnered some support from regime loyalists who nonetheless saw the need for change.

Those pushing for the full revolution underestimated the power of the hardline faction of the Al-Khalifa and misread the regional environment. The Bahraini rulers had also learned important lessons from Egypt and Tunisia. At every turn they sought to deny the opposition the unity they needed, by the use of violence, by playing up sectarian divisions, and by mobilizing their own supporters through fear. Particularly effective was the “batalgiyya” strategy of organizing Sunni irregulars to attack protestors, generating genuine alarm over rising civil sectarian strife and the collapse of law and order. They also followed the common strategy of discrediting the protestors by linking them to external enemies, specifically Iran.

Unfortunately for the Bahraini democracy movement, the Iranian threat was seen as plausible by many in the Sunni minority in Bahrain and by the broader Sunni majority in the Gulf, particularly in the shadow of the hardliner regime headed by the provocative President Ahmedinejad. By inviting in GCC troops, the Al-Khalifa elevated the narrative to the international level, subsuming the protesters legitimate democratic demands within a vast Iranian conspiracy.

This outcome is bad for everyone involved. It is ultimately bad for Bahrain which has lost all of the political gains made in King Hamad’s reform period and may soon lose the economic gains that accompanied them. The parliament is effectively defunct having lost a near majority of its members who resigned in protest at the crackdown. And the environment of intimidation and fear being created in Bahrain today is totally unsuitable for its key industries of tourism and finance which require openness and stability. By relying on Saudi Arabia and the GCC for both military and financial support, the ruling al-Khalifa have sacrificed their hard fought independence and surrendered much of their sovereignty.

This outcome is bad for the Gulf region, which desperately needs the creative engagement of its youth in order to weather the current period of demographic growth. To better ensure their future Gulf monarchies should be cooperating on new institutions to effectively channel democratic aspirations, not collaborating to suppress domestic dissent.

And this outcome is bad for the United States, whose interests lie in the reform of the Gulf monarchies, with an eye to their long term stability and to minimizing Iranian transnational influence within the Gulf states. The best way to do this is to fully integrate the Shia communities as citizens within genuinely constitutional monarchies. Unfortunately, the current trend is in the opposite direction: Gulf monarchies are amplifying sectarian divisions in order to resist moves towards democratic reforms.

The ruling family in Saudi Arabia is blaming all domestic unrest on Iran and are denouncing the Shia as a fifth column, undermining the advances made through the National Dialogue and further excluding the Shia from the national community. The government’s reliance on the religious establishment to suppress open protest and dissent portends a move away from the reforms of the King Abdullah era and an ominous return to religious nationalism over more inclusive models of citizenship. The uprising in Bahrain has likewise deepened the political crisis in Kuwait. The debate over the sending of GCC troops to Bahrain sharply divided the parliament with Sunni Islamist MPs urging support against Iranian encroachment within the Gulf states and liberal and Shia MPs denouncing the use of Gulf forces to defend a monarchy against domestic dissent. The loss of support by some in the Shia parliamentary delegation recently forced the Kuwaiti Emir to reshuffle his cabinet.

This rising sectarianism is not confined to the Gulf states, but has spread throughout the broader Middle East. Populist Shia leaders – Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon and Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq – have denounced the Saudi intervention in Bahrain and mobilized support for Bahrain’s Shia. The danger is not primarily of state to state conflict, but of increasing civil strife within societies. Gulf regimes are playing with dark and uncontrollable forces which once ignited are difficult to control.

This atmosphere of Sunni-Shia polarization will only empower the hardliners amongst both the Salafi and Shia Islamists. It is too early to tell the direction Gulf Shia will take, but with their Sunni reformist allies under siege and the path to integration closing before them, it is not hard to imagine that some will turn to transnational networks for help. The Saudi intervention in Bahrain has unwittingly legitimized such transnational appeals.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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