The Arab Spring has taken an unexpected dormant twist. The new reality of the Middle East, still authoritarian and increasingly chaotic, unstable and sectarian after the revolutions of spring swept all over, comes without the slightest surprise to those who have covered the modern history of the region. Chaos, instability and sectarianism have been present to some degree all throughout the region at some point or another with a just as varying degree of consequences; the present situation is albeit radically different as the unrest has spread in a matter of months to virtually every corner of the region, including relatively stable parts thereof such as the Arabian Gulf.
The tide of revolution reached the shores of Bahrain early in February when massive protests erupted throughout the capital and adjacent villages of the tiny island-kingdom and has never abated since then with different degrees of intensity and deteriorating at times into full-fledged violence. What began as a peaceful movement demanding better rights, an end to discrimination based on sect and to economic disparity, quickly escalated into a serious unrest of which now we understand even less, and that somewhat late, brought Bahrain to the headlines of the international news probably for the first time ever and probably not with the right background information.
In most of the Western world the opinions of the experts about the events in Bahrain and elsewhere demonstrated not only a very poor understanding of the obvious structural differences between the revolution that took place in Egypt and the situation in the Arabian Gulf (with some protests taking place in the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Saudi Arabia as well) but also of the internal conflicts inside Islam and the complex relationship of Islamic monarchies and republics to the West. Truth being said, the experts that dominated the public discussion knew as little as the man on the street and suddenly everyone turned overnight into a political commentator of the first order.
The word revolution became the household name for the uprisings in Bahrain and then an infinite number of additional demands were voiced by the activists in the ‘free world’ in order to complete a peaceful transition from regimes to democracies of some sort. Revolution, I would like to add, was too quick an addition to the repertory of Middle Eastern souvenirs, firstly because the region has a bad experience with revolutions overthrowing ancient regimes (with the cases of Iran, Libya and Syria in mind and a glance at Turkey with a lot of paucity) and also because a revolution constitutes a fundamental change of power taking place within a relatively short period of time in irregular, violent or at least extra constitutional fashion – somehow unmet in this case.
The intention of the peaceful protests at the now defunct Pearl Roundabout was very noble and a true momentum of political power was reached in Bahrain through the feeling of unity that took to the streets and that somehow, at the blink of an eye, extended the arm of the Arab Spring will into the oil-rich monarchies and faced not only the Arab rulers but also their Western friends with very difficult questions of nearly impossible resolution. This is however only a part of what we saw, and regardless of the feeling of unity among protesters and the coming together of diverse Sunni and Shia political elements, the popular support for the uprising was not universally accepted by many.
This created the two versions of the uprising proposed by Bahraini blogger and entrepreneur Suhail Algosaibi: That of a people fighting for freedom and democracy and that of a nation intimidated by unruly mobs and rioters. It is unfortunate that both versions are actually true and co-exist within the same narrative. Although the protests initially did not have a sectarian focus and all what was demanded were better rights for people, it is clearly now and as of today that radical sentiments of resentment against the government and the ruling monarchy fueled the movement throughout and this did not only anger many Bahrainis but also alienated them.
The government’s response to the deliberate provocation caused by the blend of a demand for better rights and a challenge to the hegemony of the ruling families throughout the region, was completely brutal and out of proportion. This made it possible for demands of better rights to amalgamate masterfully with political agendas into a single continuum in which peaceful protests quickly escalated into riots and the response of the government forces and also of single individuals and groups in support thereof, matched just as well, the level of radicalism that was on top of it, promoted actively by state TV and that found its realization in countless sacking of workers, expulsion of students and other forms of sectarian discrimination, both publicly and privately.
According to classical political theory it is not revolutionaries who make the revolution – they only have the ability to sense when power is in the streets and then are able to drive the people en masse to take over this power; political power is a terrible force insofar as it is eminently human and therefore it is very hard to control or to predict whither it is going. One of the key limitations of revolutionary politics is that this political power of the kind needed for a revolution is out there in the streets for too little time and timing is crucial in the creation of a revolutionary momentum even if short-lived.
When the short life-span of political power lying in the streets is up, revolutionaries seize power through violence, and this is when political power is ultimately destroyed – violence is not political and it is not a power, it is the rather solitary strength of one man or one group against a whole people, unlike political power that as a force contains the wills of entire nations. This is critical to Bahrain’s current situation because in spite of the crucial demands made by the protesters, the climax reached at Pearl Roundabout might be already overstated and its life-span might be over by now. After six months it is possible to understand that there is no grand revolutionary moment in Bahrain for a variety of reasons.
Firstly, political power in the region is not only tightly controlled but also limitedly available to those who hold the reigns because the mixture of administering tribal political structures and membership in international global economies allows for very little of a public space without turning the pendulum in benefit of one or the other direction and destroying the fragile balance. A revolution in Bahrain demands not only local reforms but a change in Western policies toward the region, the cessation of military alliances; the end of the critical relationship of the global economy to oil and less turbulent expectations toward and about Iran.
Secondly, democracy and freedom are currently under fire in most of the Western world in a climate of multicultural unrest, financial crises and anachronistic policy-making so that the rule of majority – the way we have understood democracy for long – might prove lethal when transplanted to the Arabian Gulf in its current form: The heterogeneous ethnic, religious and cultural landscape of the region is likely to be atomized and further radicalized by the postmodern comeback of religion that would necessarily mean a religious rule in which liberalism in whatever form it might have existed until now, will be effectively gone up in smoke and the limited civil liberties achieved in the last decades evaporated for good. Secularism just like atheism, is an idea whose application is hard to realize outside a Western context and that no less than democracy, is greatly challenged today in the parts of the world that promote it.
Thirdly, not all the political channels have been exhausted. What has been exhausted until now is the stubbornness and unwillingness of all the political groups to find middle terms; it is usually the case in successful political negotiations that none of the parties involved will receive all what they demand and a large measure of compromise is necessary. Long before the current unrest, critical commentators on Bahrain such as K. Niethammer and J.E. Peterson have pointed out the stalemate in which the political process stands for long with authoritarian impositions on the part of the government and radicalized demands on the part of the opposition.
The spontaneous revolutions of which Rosa Luxemburg spoke once, the sudden uprising of an oppressed people for the sake of freedom alone without the ensuing chaos of military defeats, conspirators, propaganda plots, coups and unanimous agreement between all the fractions is not really what we have seen in Bahrain because such revolutions, as in the case of the short-lived Hungarian revolution in 1956, have virtually no leaders and in which freedom is the only moving force – this is certainly difficult to achieve amidst sectarian strife, political vendettas, organized media apparatus on both sides and the widespread use of marketing and public relations as tools of political pressure.
The National Dialogue that was meant to repair the tragic outcome of the events failed not only because the opposition withdrew from the talks but also because of the minimal representation they were allocated. This being said, it is also obvious to the onlooker that the feeling of unity among the different opposition fractions is found to be broken down once the climax of Pearl Roundabout fades from view and the pro-government and loyalist fractions are taking full advantage to the situation as they point a finger to the disorganized political agenda that cannot be separated from human rights plights that have been heavily politicized.
In order to return back to earth from either version – peaceful revolution or unsettling chaos – it is necessary to stop all violence (symbolic and physical) on all sides so that a true sense of normalcy returns in order to re-open political channels again. If this is achieved, perhaps it would be intelligent to realize that no reforms are possible unless a certain degree of trust – even if small – is achieved between the parties involved. The results of BICI are important but they are not what will mend what is broken inside Bahrain’s society, they only constitute information necessary in order to move on and adjust the necessary political and legal means to repair what has been broken and to bring to justice all those who were involved in violent acts from either side – regardless of how much powerful or not was this or that side.
The best that can be expected under present circumstances is a large degree of reforms embodied in the King and the Crown Prince that might open the way for more transparent political processes that in time (and this means years and decades) could change dramatically the weight of power held by the hardliners inside the government and the monarchy, shifting it toward a more inclusive environment that will allow for political normalization and a transition to open democratic processes that should keep in line radicals in whichever form they exist. Whether this process is going to be called a democracy is not something we can predict right now, but a constitutional monarchy in which power is shared with more equality and fairness, might be the temporary solution to the chaos that the radical alternatives will unavoidably give in to. Bahrain is not a war zone, and being such a small country with some degree of resources, the problems can still be fixed before all hell breaks loose in the form of either more violent crackdowns or extreme political solutions that the whole region will come to regret.
Written By: Arie Amaya-Akkermans, freelance writer and translator