In recent days most international and even regional attention has been focused on the outpouring of unrest in Bahrain and the government's extremely violent response that left perhaps a dozen people dead and many more wounded. News media, particularly television, are driven by what is readily available, and, just like in Egypt beforehand, Bahrain immediately saw a huge influx of Western and regional journalists parachuting in to cover what they figured would be the Next Big Story. And, no doubt, the events were dramatic, disturbing and very newsworthy. However, they've been widely misunderstood as the next phase in the generalized Arab revolt against tyrannical rulers that began in Tunisia and spread to Egypt and now other states in the region. Compelling though the drama in Manama has been, the real action, so to speak, in the unfolding transformation of the Arab world is actually elsewhere, most notably in Libya and most ominously in Yemen.
Context is everything. The uprising in Bahrain is less of a direct response to the events in Tunisia and Egypt than it is essentially a replay of earlier, less dramatic but also very intense and in many ways quite similar, uprisings against the rule of the Al-Khalifa royal family. Like the earlier Bahraini protest movements, the new outpouring has become very sectarian, in spite of many protestations to the contrary, and largely reflects extreme Shiite dissatisfaction at marginalization and disenfranchisement. Unlike the other Gulf states, even those with significant Shiite populations like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, Bahrain has a substantial Shiite majority but a royal family and ruling elite that is largely Sunni and very conscious of the sectarian differences. Obviously there are lots Bahraini Sunnis with serious grievances against the government as well, including liberals and, much more powerfully, Islamists. However, the principal faultline in the country has been and remains a Sunni-Shiite divide separating the royal family and most of the country's elite from the majority Shiite population.
A couple of years ago the American Studies Center at the University of Bahrain celebrated its 10th anniversary (it is, by the way, the oldest American studies center in the Arab world, a grim testament to the state of Arab higher education), and they invited me to be their keynote speaker at their anniversary celebration. During my trip to the country I was struck by not simply the obvious sectarian tensions that were evident right away, but also the striking cultural divide between that part of Bahraini society, including the government and most of the ruling elite, which is very definitely Arab and that part, including a very significant chunk of the Shiite population, which seems to be culturally, not to mention religiously, much more attuned to Iranian orientations. It hit me as early as the immigration desk in the airport upon entry to the country, in which I noted a strong Farsi pronunciation and cadence to some of the officers' otherwise flawless local Arabic. I immediately began to look for opportunities to ask about this striking social feature, but it clearly needed to be done gingerly and with some discretion. I quickly learned just how gingerly it needed to be approached, but I did take the opportunity later on in my brief stay to travel around the northern part of the country a bit and I was struck by the culture and aesthetics of many of the Shiite towns and areas I passed through, which were not only Shiite but did not seem to reflect Arab Shiite culture such as one might find in southern Iraq or southern Lebanon as much as they did Persian culture.
I wasn't surprised by this, of course, but it was still striking. Some of the aftermath of the sectarian rioting of the mid-1990s was still evident in and around some of these Shiite areas, although I found people very reticent to discuss those events. This fault-line has a very deep history, in both recent and more distant Bahraini history. Following the Iranian revolution, after all, Shiite Islamists in Bahrain tried to replicate Khomeini's accomplishment and establish a similar system in that country. In 1956, during British rule, the royal family was briefly driven out of Manama by such sectarian tensions to the village of Refae Al Gharbi, reportedly attended only by Sunni servants and followers. It would be very nice to think that the present uprising was a unified and principled rebellion against an autocratic government, but I think the reality clearly is that it's largely yet another expression of these deeply rooted and ongoing sectarian tensions. In other words, while the Bahraini opposition may have been inspired by Tunisia and Egypt, I do not see this latest unrest in the island as primarily an extension of the logic of those rebellions but more a replay of earlier events, particularly the unrest of the 1990s.
What this implies, of course, is that the focus by international attention and media coverage on Bahrain as the next stage in a generalized Arab revolt against autocrats has probably been misguided. Bahrain is a unique case, as the history of sectarian tensions and repeated uprisings against what is, after all, a religiously, and in some senses culturally, minority government demonstrates. There isn't any similar history of deep sectarian and even ethnic tensions leading to repeated uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya or Jordan. Yemen has had its share of unrest and even civil war, but again, with a very different character than the Bahraini experience. So while I wouldn't argue that the unrest in Bahrain is disconnected from the wave of protests stemming from the Tunisian and Egyptian examples, I would argue that it is largely a manifestation of other dynamics. It could be observed that every Arab state has its own logic and its own unique set of circumstances that define its political evolution. But it's much easier to see a direct connection between Tunisia and Egypt on the one hand and anti-government protests in Libya, Yemen, Jordan and elsewhere than this latest manifestation of the ongoing and unresolved tension between the rulers and the ruled in Bahrain that is, sad to say but in truth, largely sectarian.
There is another important distinction between the dynamics in Bahrain and that in other protest-wracked Arab states, which is that neither side can really hope to “win” in that country, which means that a compromise is virtually inevitable no matter how much blood is spilled. The government of Bahrain has a very strong hand to play, unlike many of the other Arab governments affected by anti-government protests. The Bahraini royal family enjoys significant support from the local Sunni population, even if they have simmering grievances against the autocracy, in the face of what is perceived as a largely Shiite uprising. Very significantly it also enjoys strong regional support, particularly from its nervous fellow Gulf Cooperation Council members, and international support from the United States, which bases its Fifth Fleet in that country as the centerpiece of US naval power in the Persian Gulf. It also clearly has a military, largely made up of foreign mercenaries, that has demonstrated not only a willingness but an excessive eagerness to use deadly violence against unarmed protesters. The baneful legacy of Ian Henderson — a British mercenary and thug, and veteran of the dirty war against the Mau-Mau in Kenya, who ran Bahrain's state security services for some 30 years until he was shunted aside following the unrest in the 1990s — has been on full display. Henderson was known for his embrace of torture as a primary security tactic and has been reported by numerous victims to have participated in beatings and other abuses personally, in both Kenya and Bahrain. The security culture he helped establish in the country over many decades sadly seems alive and well given the casual brutality of the largely mercenary armed forces towards the demonstrators.
On the other hand, violence alone cannot restore order and will eventually lead to greater levels of chaos and possibly worse. The country could be wracked by protests and organized opposition for quite a while pitting a sizable majority against minority rulers, which is an untenable situation. Worse, there is always the possibility, if violence by the government forces continues unchecked, that somehow opposition groups, particularly Shiite ones, will begin to arm themselves in response. Certainly with the presence of the Fifth Fleet, it would not be easy for Iran or other outside forces to arm anyone in Bahrain who wishes to fight fire with fire, but history demonstrates that when people are determined to arm themselves, they can usually find a way to do so. In other words, there is always the possibility, however remote, of Bahrain degenerating into a sectarian civil war, a prospect that must make the royal family and the Sunni population in general exceptionally nervous. And, while there isn't any immediate prospect of Iranian intervention, Iranian territorial claims on Bahrain are deeply rooted in the history of the two countries and passionately believed in by lots of Iranians, and possibly by many Bahrainis as well. Certainly during the 50s and 60s under the Shah, Iran's continuing insistence that Bahrain was merely a province of their country led to considerable tensions with Britain and Arab states. Since the revolution Iran has been more quiet, but probably not less determined, about its territorial ambitions with regard to the Bahraini islands. The prospect of a long-term, even low-level, civil conflict that is sectarian and cultural most ominously presents a potential opportunity in the medium or long terms for possible indirect or even direct Iranian intervention, particularly if the power of that state continues to increase and the presence and influence of the United States wanes in the region.
Both the Bahraini protest movement and the government face a very difficult situation in which clear-cut victory is almost certainly not available. They both also have a great deal to lose and a great deal to fear. Therefore, in spite of the bitterness caused by the extreme overreaction and brutality of the military and police, and the deep divides that underlie the rebellion, a compromise seems virtually inevitable and nothing else makes any sense for either side. One can already see the government, or at least some parts of it, moving quickly in this direction. The Crown Prince in particular has indicated an understanding of the gravity of the situation and said at least some of the right things. His speech following the violent crackdown was a considerable contrast to speeches by former Egyptian Pres. Mubarak, in that it reflected an understanding of what exactly was going on in his country and the dangers at hand, and even implied some grasp of what would be required to get a grip on the situation. The military has been withdrawn from the streets, replaced by the police, which does not mean an end to the violent suppression of the protests but does indicate the government's recognition of the need to move away from confrontation and towards dialogue. The government has been calling for such a dialogue, and while it has been correctly observed that shooting people is not a good way of starting the conversation, I don't see a way out for either side without it.
Bahrain engaged in some significant political reforms during the last decade, although it backed away from some of them more recently. It has an elected parliament, although with very limited powers, and some legal political parties. The government of Bahrain has very little choice but to build on this legacy and expand the inclusivity of the system, particularly in an effort to enfranchise the Shiite majority and begin to repair the extreme alienation parts of it feels towards the entire social and political system of the country. It won't be starting from scratch, but it will be fighting its own deepest instincts. Internally, there is a powerful impulse to secure autocratic and minority rule against power-sharing and acknowledging the rights of the Shiite majority. Internationally, there is a powerful and rational fear of Iranian ambitions and influence, concerns shared by Bahrain's Gulf Arab neighbors. Nonetheless, if the government and ruling elite of Bahrain want to avoid continued unrest and more of these cyclical explosions of Shiite anger it has to begin to seriously change the relationship between the majority and minority, and between the state and its Shiite citizenry, as well as with the individual citizens in general. We are already seeing what appear to be efforts to balance the carrot and stick by the government, and I would expect those moves to continue, however slowly and haltingly, in the direction of a compromise which is the only way out for both sides, assuming most people want to avoid a degeneration into sustained chaos or even civil war.
Of course I'm suggesting here that much news coverage and analysis has misread events in Bahrain because it has lacked or elided this historical context, and has miscast it as the latest manifestation of a generalized Arab uprising against autocrats. It's not unconnected to that broader Arab wave of reformist protests, but it reflects a very unique set of circumstances and has much more in common with earlier Bahraini protest movements than with protest movements in the rest of the Arab world. Because the context is so different, the dynamics are also very different, and the choices facing the different actors involved are atypical. I don't think this has been made clear to most uninformed observers and most news coverage or analysis has failed to properly contextualize it and instead has tended to focus on the drama of the events, which was very striking of course, and the shocking brutality of the security services. But I think Bahrain remains very much a sideshow in the broader Arab realignment, wherever it is ultimately leading, and has its own unique dynamics which will play out in a singular manner and which is unlikely to tell us much about where the rest of the region, even other Gulf states with Shiite populations, is heading.
Meanwhile, in Libya, although virtually no foreign journalists or independent media are present on the ground, it's clear that the main feature is taking place, largely unobserved and woefully under analyzed. Human Right Watch has estimated that at least 84 people were killed in the past three days of protesting and unconfirmed reports suggest that a good deal of the eastern part of the country and significant cities such as Al-Bayda, and possibly even Benghazi, are not only the scenes of significant protests but may even have been partially seized by protesters. Good information is very hard to come by, but it looks like the aged, decrepit regime of Mouammar Gaddafi may be tottering at its foundations. Certainly the government in Tripoli seems the most likely candidate for early regime change at the moment, and it is considerably more vulnerable than the government in Manama. Even in simple geographical terms, it's impossible to miss the direct connection between this uprising in Libya and the revolts in its two immediate neighbors, Tunisia to the west and Egypt to the east. Of course there is a local context here — there always is and will be. But the Libyan uprising, like those in Tunisia and Egypt, seem very rooted in a generalized Arab disgust with autocracy, corruption, endless rule by individuals and their immediate families, and the sclerotic stasis which has seized so many Arab societies for so long. In other words, this is not only the main show, as opposed to the sideshow in Bahrain, it's a very logical next phase of a movement sweeping much of the Arab world that in turn will set the stage for what happens next elsewhere.
The most important of those elsewheres in the immediate or medium term will almost certainly be Yemen. The country is the scene of at least two civil wars, a robust Al Qaeda presence, a heavily armed, largely uneducated and very poor population, and an incompetent government led by a widely disliked and corrupt president who, like Mubarak and Qaddafi, has been in power for decades without delivering effective or decent governance to his country. Yemen is not only fragmented and already chaotic, it is also exceptionally strategically located and has very powerful cultural, social and familial connections to southern and western Saudi Arabia, which is almost certainly the most brittle of all Gulf states given its large population, increasing poverty and significant disgruntled Shiite minority. What happens in Yemen will almost certainly have a significant impact outside its borders, for many reasons. That's very unlikely to be the case with Bahrain, and while what happens in Libya will have an influence it's not as volatile a case as Yemen by any means. The protest movement is already underway in Yemen, and it may take quite a while for it to develop the kind of critical mass we have seen in Tunisia and Egypt, and now to some extent in Bahrain and, it would appear, in Libya. But there is every indication that the tracks have been laid and the train is heading towards the station, and diverting it is going to be extremely challenging for the government in Sanna.
More interestingly, while there will almost certainly be a clear winner and loser in Libya as in Egypt and Tunisia (and it will probably play itself out fairly quickly), and while there will almost certainly be no winners or losers as such in Bahrain, Yemen could be much more complex in its outcome. And by complex read dangerous. There are would-be breakaway provinces, regional tensions, sectarian differences, international interference from various parties, and of course the presence of international terrorists. Utter chaos in Yemen is a distinct possibility, as is its transition from a partly-failed to a fully-failed state, a potential Somalia on the corner of the Arabian Peninsula. Journalists and analysts have been so mesmerized by the dramatic images coming out of, and their own presence in, Bahrain that the potential implications of a deteriorating situation in Yemen have been almost entirely unremarked upon. This indicates a certain shallowness of analysis that frequently characterizes coverage and observations of Middle Eastern events, and the very annoying tendency of journalists to believe that if they are physically present, or at least have dramatic footage, this means the story is the most important one. That's not true, obviously, as the contrast between the woefully underreported events in Libya and the heavily covered (except by Al Jazeera, for obvious reasons) but ultimately almost certainly less significant events in Bahrain, demonstrates.
Of course it's a fair point that it's difficult to cover a story in a closed, locked-down society like Libya with no independent media and no willingness to grant visas to foreign journalists, especially in contrast to a relatively open society like Bahrain. But, excuse me, that's what journalists are for — to find a way of getting the facts on the biggest story rather than parachuting in, as so many prominent Western reporters have done in Manama, and focusing on the story they have as if it were the most important one for that very reason. Several big-name American and other Western journalists have done that parachuting into Bahrain, and have not distinguished themselves very well in the process. Some have even managed to over-dramatize what is an extremely dramatic, tragic and horrifying situation on its own terms. There is a certain solipsism at work here, and it hasn't been very edifying.
But even if Western and other reporters wanted to make Bahrain the big story in recent days because they were physically present, had good footage and could cover the events more easily and in a more compelling way, it doesn't change the fact that what's happening in Libya has been more dramatic, more brutal, more significant, and has far deeper implications. Or the fact that what seems to be brewing in Yemen could very possibly be more significant than either of them. My first reaction on Twitter to the apparently forced “resignation” of Pres. Mubarak was to state the obvious: that this would not stop with Egypt and would certainly spread far and wide in the Arab world, one stage at a time (most of the small, rich Gulf states being immune due to wealth and limited populations, and Iraq and Lebanon having their own dynamics). The epicenter of this broader Arab reawakening is clearly now in Libya, with Yemen and others waiting in the wings. At some point coverage and analysis is going to have to begin to be able to tell the difference between the big picture and a compelling but ultimately isolated sideshow.