The Bahrain Predicament

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This piece was originally written right after a car bomb explosion on July 18 in Riffa south of the capital Manama. The result of resisting the majority’s demands, the author brings into question whether there is any prudence in endorsing their aspirations.


By Massaab Al-Aloosy, 2nd October 2013

Yesterday a car exploded near the Sheikh Khalifah mosque in Manama, Bahrain.  The incident was immediately condemned as a terrorist attack by the government which warned of attempts to tear the social fabric. Although there were no casualties, the explosion is a reminder of how intricate the situation is in Bahrain. For a long time now, the opposition has been calling for democratization of the political system to no avail.  These calls became louder as the Arab Spring began in late 2010, and which culminated in the 2011 mass demonstration in Manama. From the first glance morality dictates support of the people’s right to choose their own representatives in government, but reality is much more complicated.

The repression of democratic movements has, at least in some cases, contributed to the rise of terrorism1 and that is a plausible scenario in Bahrain.  It is widely recognized that there is a political cause behind every terrorist act; as Martha Crenshaw has asserted “[t]errorist violence communicates a political message; its ends go beyond damaging an enemy’s material resources.”2  Bahrain, in that regard, is no exception. What makes matters worse is that although the attack appears to be conducted by novices, nevertheless, continuous experimentation might be followed by sophistication. On the other hand, however, change in the government itself does not necessarily yield a democratic government, let alone a conducive one to regional and global powers.

It is impossible to view democratization in Bahrain without taking into account regional rivalry.  The opposition, and by implication the demonstrators, are viewed favorably by Iran and suspiciously by Saudi Arabia.  This rivalry exists within a wider context of the Sunni-Shii schism that is becoming more and more ruthless.  The change in government in Manama would give away to more influence if not domination of the Shia in the country and by extension to an increased Iranian influence in the region – or at least that is what some Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia believe.  In other words, the battle for Bahrain is only part of a bigger conflict between Sunnis and Shia that is occurring also in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.  No wonder the head of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, believed the demonstrations were repressed because they were Shia.  But that is not all.

The issue becomes more complex when we take into consideration the importance of Bahrain to the U.S.  Since 1948 the island has been one of the main centers of US naval activity.  The fifth fleet maintained the responsibility of covering areas that range from the Red sea to parts of the Indian Ocean, and has 4,200 servicemen that work in the country.  Bahrain was also instrumental during the Gulf war in 1991, the war against Afghanistan in 2001, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  Simply put: U.S interest is at stake, and thus U.S commitment to the regime is expected. It should not be surprising that Hillary Clinton, the former Secretary of State, called Bahrain a “model partner” and congratulated the country for successful elections shortly before the demonstrations.

There are several questions one needs to ask before formulating an opinion about events in Bahrain: Should democratization be supported if it means increased influence of a rogue regime? Or put in a different way, should undemocratic but allied governments be backed? How democratic is the opposition? How much do history and culture milieu matter? And finally, should morality prevail over interest? That is the true predicament. 

Citations

  • 1. Katerina Dalacoura (2006) Islamist terrorism and the Middle East democratic deficit: Political exclusion, repression and the causes of extremism, Democratization, 13:3, 508-525, DOI: 10.1080/13510340600579516
  • 2. The Causes of Terrorism Martha Crenshaw

    Massaab Al-Aloosy worked as a journalist for Al Jazeera in both Iraq and Qatar. He is currently a PhD candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. His focus is on Security Studies and the Middle East

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