Obscure to most Americans, but vitally important to the American military, the tiny island nation of Bahrain has become the latest Middle Eastern country to be caught in the throes of destabilizing unrest. At least four Bahraini protesters are now dead from the military’s swift response to Thursday’s tumultuous political demonstrations. As with most imperiled states in the region, the political reality of Bahrain is extremely complicated, and the matter of which faction is worthy of support – the populace or the authoritarian government – is no simple question. In many ways, Bahrain is one of the best examples of the Mideast democracy paradox; one that, if lost to the winds of fortune, would be devastating for regional stability, and probably the people of Bahrain as well.
A coveted Archipelago, Bahrain has a long history of domination by world powers. This includes the Persians, the Arabs, the Ottomans, and to some extent, the British. For most of the modern area, Bahrain has been an Islamic country, with roughly 70% of the population identifying as Shia Muslims, and 30%, Sunni. For the last decade, Bahrain had been a parliamentary monarchy, whose al-Khalifa dynasty, which is Sunni, has ruled for more than 200 years.
The current monarch, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, has been a devoted ally to the U.S. and to its strategic interests in Middle East, especially with respect to Iran. In turn, the U.S. has been a military aegis for the tiny Persian Gulf nation, installing the home base of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Jaffair, and actively preventing Iranian influence in the country and elsewhere in the region. This is important, as the Shia Iranian theocracy has often expressed kinship with the Bahraini Shia population, whom the minority-Sunnis frequently accuse of being clients of the Islamic Republic (although the Shiites adamantly deny this is the case). The American Fifth Fleet monitors important strategic waterways in the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Suez Canal, the Strait of Hormuz, and others. It also oversees operations from Afghanistan and Iraq from the Bahraini base.
What is also important about Bahrain, is that the presiding monarchy would be supportive of military or other action against Iran, and, in fact, suggested as much to the U.S., according to a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks. Neighboring Saudi Arabia, also a Sunni monarchy, is likewise supportive of this eventuality, and the two countries have maintained extremely close ties. In enabling the U.S. to monitor the area for malignant forces, such the Iranian Navy and piracy, the Bahrain-U.S.-Saudi trifecta, is a cornerstone of peace in the region.
But the significance of Bahrain is not merely strategic. Bahrain is a sliver of modernity in the Muslim world. It is a relatively open, prosperous society, and is a favored retreat for military personnel and Saudi playboys for this very reason. The country is home to bars and resorts, for instance, and it is the hub of the regional banking system, particularly for Saudi Arabia. Bahrain provides free or low-cost health care, and both its standard of living and literacy rate are high. In 2010, the government reported its unemployment rate was enviously below 4%. After assuming power, King Hamad was favorable to the country’s women’s right movement, granting women the right to vote and to hold political office.
One wonders, then, why there would be an anti-government uprising in Bahrain in the first place. Generally, much of the restive atmosphere in the Middle East has to do with economic woes, felt most acutely among the poor, which has been exacerbated by the global economic downturn and the meteoric rise in food prices. These conditions also exists in Bahrain to some extent, but economic hardship is also stratified between Sunnis and Shiites, where the former tends to live a more comfortable, modern lifestyle. Not surprisingly, the anti-government opposition in Bahrain is primarily comprised of the less well-off majority-Shiite population. Sunnis, on the other hand, are supportive of the monarchy, and are skeptical about where blame for Shiite grievances truly lies.
In an interview with The New York Times, several Sunni Bahrainis, supportive of the monarchy, pointed to the Shiite culture, not the government, as the reason that Shia economic mobility was lacking. Having too many children, cutting short their education, and demanding handouts from the government, were cited as the sources of Shiite adversity. The interviewees also expressed fears that their freedoms would be taken away if Shiites were to come to power, and worried that they would align the country with Iran and impose harsh religious restrictions . “To me, it’s about preserving my freedoms,” one Sunni woman told the Times.
In fact, there is much reason to be concerned. In an effort to mimic the scene in Cairo’s Tahrir Squre, protester’s gathered Thursday in the country’s capital, Manama, calling their encampment “Martyrs’ Squre.” After leaving the Bahraini hospital of Salmanyah, where wounded or killed protesters were taken, the opposition movement called for the death of King Khalifa. The demonstrators claimed bloodshed only motivated them to fight back even more. However, this only scratches the surface.
In response to the government’s violent repression of the protesters, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged more restraint and reportedly discussed “political and economic reform efforts to respond to the citizens of Bahrain.” But we have already been down this road before. Pressure for governmental reform in Bahrain had been mounting since the 1990s. After succeeding his father in 1999, King Hamad instituted a number of democratic reforms, including restoring the parliament which had been disbanded for 27 years. He released Shiite political prisoners, and instituted constitutional reforms. The result? A powerful Islamist Shia party, al-Wefaq, became the single largest political party in Bahrain; many of its leaders were released from prison or brought back from exile from Hamad’s reforms. By 2006, the Islamists had secured nearly half (18) of the 40 seats in the Bahraini parliament.
Since coming to power, al-Wefaq has called for racial segregation of South Asian residents of Bahrain, who were being harassed by Bahraini nationals. This was viewed as the best way to “deal with” the racial tension between the two ethnic groups. Steven Cook, a fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations, has called the group’s position on women “outrageous.” “In fact,” he continued, “one of the leaders of Al Wefaq wanted to pass a law such that windows in Bahraini apartment buildings— [so] you could not see out” (emphasis added).
Outrageous is putting it kindly. Al Wefaq believes that all legal changes regarding the role of women and the family should be made by clerics, because they are religious matters. It has organized large campaigns against secular women’s rights movements. As recently as 2009, the party rejected a law that would set the minimum age of marriage for women at 15, claiming that it was “against the principles of Islam.” The outrages go on and on.
This is what fellow traveler Nicholas Kristof of the Times refers to as Bahrain’s “pro-democracy movement.”
To be sure, secular and liberal reformers do exist in Bahrain, but as in Egypt and numerous other countries in the region, they comprise a much smaller percentage of the “pro-democracy” constituency, and only facilitate hardline Islamists in making huge political gains. In Egypt, after Mubarak instituted multiparty elections in 2005, the opposition movement (which had much the same composition as the 2011 opposition movement) enabled the Muslim Brotherhood to go from 0-88 seats in the Egyptian parliament, making it the second largest political party in the country. Other reformers gained only half as many seats. This is to say nothing of the numerous other democratic movements in the region that have produced the very same results. With every introduction of democratic reforms, the outcome is always the same: more instability, more bellicosity, and more power for the Islamists.
Why? Cook explained the phenomenon precisely:
[I]n Bahrain, there’s been a degree of collaboration between Al Wefaq and the secular opposition—the old Ba’athists, the old communists and other people who just consider themselves democrats—where they work together, but the political reality is quite different. The secular opposition is beholden to Al Wefaq because they represent 65 percent of the population. And you know, at the end of the day, they’re willing to give up women’s issues when it comes to political reform in the constitution. Whatever their big goals are, they realize that this is complicated.
The same is true for Egypt, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, and so on. The sad truth is that the freedom agenda in the Muslim world is lost in a larger, popularly supported fascist movement. It seeks to impose a monolithic theocracy that denies the most basic human rights to its citizens. And for all it’s lip service to democracy and freedom, it is anathema to both.
Thus, the paradox of democracy in the the Middle East is really not as difficult as it may seem. It arises from a naive conflation of “democracy” and “freedom.” While it’s true that America should support free, civil societies, which do tend to engender global peace, not every populist movement is a free movement. Many – if not most – of the so-called “democratic” revolutions in the 20th century have been fascist movements, which have hijacked and perverted the lexicon of freedom. All of the Communists called their massacring police states “people’s democracies;” the theocracy of Iran, which executes Islamic deviants, was installed through another such “democratic revolution.” Don’t be fooled. Democracy for these movements is only a means. Not an end.