My latest column, which appears in today's print editions of Gulf News, looks at the international intervention in Libya. Careful readers of my previous column on this subject will have noted that my objection was less to the idea of intervening in Libya than it was to the fact that we seemed not to know exactly why we were intervening or on whose behalf. This essay explores my other - frankly, bigger - fear: that we are embarking on this despite the fact that neither the West nor the Arab nations supporting the action are really prepared to accept the consequences of hat they have begun. If we are going to do this we need to be prepared to see it through to the finish. Frankly, I see little evidence of that so far.

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What are we to make of the seemingly abrupt turn events in Bahrain have taken over the last 48 hours? Just two days ago the small kingdom’s security forces doubled-down on repression, attacking sleeping women and children camped at the Pearl Roundabout and then beating medical first responders who tried to help the wounded. Now, the country’s Crown Prince is set to meet with demonstrators, the security forces have pulled back and protestors have again taken control of the roundabout – one of Manama’s main traffic choke points.

The answer, as Gary Sick suggested Friday on PBS’ Newshour, may lie in the hints of a schism within the royal family.

One of the most puzzling elements of Friday’s brutal assault by the security forces was the fact that it came a short time after King Hamad had appeared on television to give a fairly conciliatory speech. It was noteworthy, however, that the attacks were led by Bahrain’s internal security police – a force that reports directly to the Prime Minister, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al-Khalifa. The PM is the king’s uncle and has held his job ever since Bahrain declared independence from Britain in 1971.

King Hamad came to power in 1997 following the death of his father, Sheikh Khalifa’s older brother. In the early years of his rule Hamad seemed to want to open Bahrain’s political system. That is hardly surprising. The last years of his father’s rule were marked by increasingly frequent unrest among Bahrain’s majority Shiites. The protests of the mid-90s were put down ruthlessly (though never with the sort of force we saw this week), but they were also generally small and rarely made their way into the capital. The unrest was confined to villages that, while only a short drive from downtown Manama, were a world away from the cosmopolitan lives of well-off Bahrainis and western expatriates. I remember arriving in Bahrain in late 1995 and being stunned to discover that my Irish and Australian hosts were not even aware of the riots that had taken place barely three miles from their apartment a few weeks earlier.

On taking power, the new Emir (it was only a few years later that Hamad promoted himself to “King”) appeared to understand that something had to change. In 2002 he allowed elections to take place for Bahrain’s parliament, which his father had suspended shortly after independence three decades earlier. The parliament’s powers, however, remained severely circumscribed and the country’s Shia majority came to complain that electoral constituencies are drawn in ways designed to dilute their strength as voters. The result, most critics will say, has been a country whose leaders talk about reform and openness a lot but tend to give away very little of consequence. Years ago, writing for Lonely Planet, I noted that people often say Bahrain is a liberal country when what they really mean is that it is liberal by the standards of its neighbors – i.e. Saudi Arabia and Iran. I made that comment in reference to social norms, but under King Hamad it can be said to apply to politics as well.

Anywhere in the Gulf it is always difficult for outsiders to know what is really going inside a ruling family, but it has long been widely believed that Hamad’s modernizing instincts, limited though they may be, are at odds with his uncle’s view of the world. Moreover, while Sheikh Khalifa is not king he does command both the loyalty of the security forces and the support of a significant faction within the royal family (though before we make Khalifa out to be the exclusive villain of this piece it is worth asking exactly how many absolute monarchs, over the course of history, have willingly ceded significant power to democratically-elected leaders).

That analysis, of course, is largely a combination of hearsay and educated guessing, but it would serve to explain the sporadic and, at times, hesitant nature of political reform in Bahrain over the last 14 years. It would also imply that the appointment of the 41-year old, US-educated Crown Prince, Sheikh Salman Bin Hamad, as the government’s key negotiator is a good thing.

It has been noted almost everywhere that Bahrain’s rulers are Sunni Muslims while the protestors overwhelmingly come from the country’s large Shiite Muslim majority. It is important to add, however, that based on what we have seen this week it is not accurate to call the protests sectarian in nature, not yet, at least. Bahrain’s Shia are a large majority of the population, they do have legitimate grievances against the current regime and the Al-Khalifas. For the most part, however, they have not expressed those grievances in religious terms. What we have seen on television are rallies for democracy and justice. That is not to say that things might not change – but if we in the West fall into the trap of assuming that any country dominated by Shiites is automatically going to become an Iranian satellite we risk alienating potential allies at best, and, at worst, turning our fears into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Moreover, it needs to be said that Bahrain, while authoritarian, is not a police state on the model of Syria, Libya or even Mubarak’s Egypt. There are a lot of prosperous, middle class Bahrainis who are reasonably happy with things the way they are – and that group includes more than a few Shiites. In so small a country, any move toward comprehensive change will need to address their hopes and fears as well.

The Wild Card in all of this is, and will be, the role of the Saudis. Just about anyone who knows anything about Bahrain seems to agree on one thing at the moment: the Al-Saud are not going to allow Bahrain’s royal family to be overthrown. As the respected Middle East scholar Toby Jones told the New York Times recently: “Saudi Arabia did not build a causeway to Bahrain so that Saudis could party on weekends. It was designed for moments like this, for keeping Bahrain under control.”

If King Hamad is serious about reform he is now truly walking a tightrope. On the one side are demonstrators who will demand far more now, after the shedding of blood, than they might have settled for a week ago. On the other are his powerful uncle and the giant neighbor on which Bahrain is, in many ways, dependant. Both are likely to urge him to give no ground, fearing the inevitable result will be the emergence of a mini-Iran just a few miles across the water from the large and not-terribly-well-treated Shia population of Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province.

Can the king manage the delicate act of preserving his, and his family’s, position while ceding real power? My own sense is that there is no way the Al-Khalifas can continue to hold absolute power without resorting to a bloodbath that would destroy both Bahrain’s economy and its relationship with the West. Doing so might give some of the other ruling families around the Gulf cause to rejoice – but only temporarily, and only if they are astonishingly short-sighted.

The best argument for supporting democratic change in the Middle East is a moral one. But even if one puts that aside there is another, chillingly practical, case to be made: in putting down a genuinely democratic, popular uprising rulers do not prevent change, they only postpone it, even as they guarantee that the next round of unrest will be worse than the one they have just suppressed.

 
 
Tunisia presents President Obama with the opportunity to show that, unlike Bush and his other predecessors, he will put the long-term interests of Arab people ahead of the short-term interests of Arab governments.

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Wishful Thinking?

30/06/2009

 

Those of us who are not professional historians (and a few who are) tend to view the past through the wrong end of a telescope. We mark America’s independence on July 4, 1776, conveniently ignoring the fact that it took seven years of war and of peace negotiations before the declaration of Philadelphia became a reality. The French Revolution and overthrow of the monarchy are popularly associated with the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. But on July 15 Louis the XVI was still very much king. It would be another three and a half years before he was guillotined.

In Iran the overthrow of the Shah is conveniently pegged in February 1979. But his departure was preceded by months of rising unrest, and was followed by two years of turmoil and political maneuvering as his would-be successors jockeyed for power.

What brings all of this to mind is the impassioned and heartfelt, but ultimately wishful, commentary on Iran that we have seen here in the West over the last two weeks. Ten days ago American news programs were showing video from Tehran and intercutting it with scenes from the Philippines in 1986, the Berlin Wall in 1989 and Boris Yeltsin at the Russian Parliament building in 1991. There was talk of “regime change” (a phrase one might have thought American pundits would have learned to avoid).

By last weekend those images were gone, as was the talk of a quick revolution. In there place were assurances that, whatever may happen in the short run, everything in Iran has changed. I’ve lost track of the number of pieces I’ve read that declared this moment the end of the First Phase of the Second Iranian Revolution.

Perhaps those other commentators are right. Perhaps, as happened in 1978-79, the deaths of the last month will set off a series of rolling, and ever-growing, mourning demonstrations that will shake a discredited regime to its core. Perhaps.

Or maybe nothing of the sort is going to happen. Maybe Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s regime, having demonstrated sufficient ruthlessness to intimidate every opponent who matters, will use the coming months to complete its evolution into a full-blown national security state. I have even read a few articles speculating that, like China after Tiananmen, what we have seen over the last three weeks will be the beginning of a process through which Iran evolves toward authoritarian openness. Again, maybe. But it is worth remembering that it took post-Tiananmen China a very long time to open up and become the officially-Communist-yet-free-market state we know today. Were I an Iranian I’d take little comfort from that analogy.

There are clearly two struggles going on in Iran right now: one in the streets where protests over a stolen election have become something bigger and more deeply felt; and another within the high councils of the regime.

One cannot rule out the possibility of a real revolution – a genuine change of political system, as occurred in the communist bloc in 1989, and in Iran itself a decade earlier – emerging from all of this. But it is equally, if not more, likely that any ‘change’ ultimately will be for the worse, involving a far-ranging and brutal crack down of which we have only seen the beginning combined, perhaps, with some reordering of figures at the top of the regime.

What absolutely bears watching in the coming weeks will be the reaction around the Arab World. Ahmedinejad has built a surprising following among ordinary Arabs with his heated denunciations of America, Israel and the West in general. The fact that a Persian Shiite could command such respect among ordinary Sunni Arabs always said less about him than about the widespread discontent many Arab citizens feel for their own governments. That, however, was before he stole an election with even less finesse than the average Arab president usually manages and sent paramilitaries into the street to put down protests in a way many ordinary Arabs will find depressingly familiar.

Whether this new Ahmedinejad remains an admired figure on the proverbial Arab Street may, in the near-to-medium term, tell us a lot about how receptive Arab citizens are to Barack Obama’s call for a new American relationship with the world of Islam. Among Arabs part of Ahmedinejad’s appeal always lay in the fact that he said the things Arabs longed to hear while having a degree of genuine popular legitimacy. With the legitimacy gone, will rhetoric alone be enough to maintain his image with this most unlikely constituency?