First published at 5PMBAHRAIN
How to make Bahrain shout into the Light?
When historian and political analyst J. E. Peterson published in 2009 his analysis of the promises and realities of the political reform that swept Bahrain all throughout the 2000’s, he opened with the thesis that since Bahrain is the first post-oil economy among the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, many of the stresses in Bahrain will soon be felt elsewhere in the Gulf. It only requires minimum familiarity with the social and political situation in the region to grasp that Peterson was right, but also, a little insight on the particulars of Bahrain is enough to reveal that he was also wrong.
Every country in the world can claim – and not without a measure of correctness – that it is unique and not similar to its neighbors; all communities thrive on idiosyncrasies of their own, derived from the fact that no human being is identical to the next fellowman. Bahrain, however, does stand as en exotic pearl in the Arabian Gulf where it stands for a dynamic paradigm of history and politics that makes it almost an island – which alas it is!
It is true that Bahrain is the first post-oil economy in the region and that this had pushed the country toward a more diverse economy, with all the social and political challenges involved. Where Peterson falls short is where the great Fuad Khuri was right, writing thirty years before Peterson that the peculiarity of Bahrain is the combination of civil society with relatively advanced bureaucracy pieced together onto a persisting syndrome of tribal politics.
Tribal politics belongs nowadays to a set of keywords universally applied to the Gulf and understandably so, however, civil society and advanced bureaucracy are not. Some sort of cosmopolitan civil society was established in the island long before the arrival of Al-Khalifa and the protectorate status in the British Empire; it is a natural consequence of its role as a trade center that goes back thousands of years before the spread of Islam.
Advanced bureaucracy was a necessary step in affirming British rule in the island because of its strategic location, and then was significantly expanded during the last years of colonial rule and even more during the early days of independence. In both respects – civil society and bureaucracy – Bahrain stands decades ahead of its richer, more powerful neighbors, at the same time that the outstanding tribal texture of its society lives in an open contradiction with the above, making modernization, liberalization and institutionalization a very painful process. Many of Bahrain’s greatest ills were built-in during colonial times and still not completely eroded.
Keeping with the times, it is paradoxical to realize that after the discovery of oil, Bahrain stepped back several decades by reverting from a diverse economy of fishing, pearl diving and dates with extensive international ties, to a monolithic oil-based economy as that of the neighbors; while this was translated into progress for the region, the exact opposite happened in Bahrain, where the oil economy fueled the decrease of equality and political participation. In this sense, Bahrain does not meet the definition of the Arab rentier state, so widespread among commentators on the affairs of the region.
An historical excursus seems unnecessary in times of upheaval since this information is widely available elsewhere and does not necessarily reflect the tensions of the present. My intention accordingly is not scholarly but rather points to what we can learn from this all in the Bahraini experience and out of it.
Hundreds of pages have been written as of this year about the uprisings that swept Bahrain almost exactly seven months ago and that though abated, have not entirely disappeared. One more article either praising the government or the protesters or discussing the unknown future on the basis of the present alone seems to me nothing but an exercise in intellectual status quo.
We’ve all grown weary by now from shouting in the dark. The politicians in the opposition find themselves with their hands tied, the government is exhausted and hence reforms will be very hard to come by in this climate, the international observers have turned their eyes toward the irresoluble situation in Syria and the delicate transitional politics of Egypt and Libya, not to mention the crucial threshold that should define Palestine’s bid for statehood and the regional isolation of Israel.
Lastly and more importantly, the citizens of Bahrain, the most important piece in this puzzle, they are themselves tired and although many in the protest movement are not readily accepting it, people desire to return to normalcy and voices of uneasiness and complaint are heard not only against the intervention of the security forces to clamp down small protests spread in the villages but also against the protesters.
Those of us who were thinking of Bahrain as a medieval primitive society where a small family rules over a fully disenfranchised majority, we were clearly getting our story out of a single source and probably did not even know Bahrain existed before the likes of Robert Fisk made the case for its protest movement.
The history of Bahrain and its contradictions serves the purpose of showing the extent to which we are not dealing here with a sudden awakening of an entire people against a regime. The tale of February 14 is the last straw in a century long struggle between several forces that are by no means limited to Shia against the rulers.
A complex texture of conflict pervades Bahrain’s modern history: Sunni vs. Shia, modernist vs. religionist, progressive vs. Islamist, left vs. reactionary, communist vs. traditionalist, urban vs. rural or village vs. city, tribal vs. urban, etc. not to forget the internal divisions inside the ruling family and their tribal allies that go back decades and centuries. Some of these conflicts are typical of a tribal society but the radical universals of much of this struggle are by no means tribal and they cut across the most varied segments of society, bearing the imprint of an early modernization of public life tainted by the tribal nature of private life.
At the Pearl Roundabout we witnessed the unleash of an incredible new political force that at once united Bahrain but that quickly bifurcated into the old pattern of Bahrain politics: At the evident lack of formal organization, the opposition became not only weakened by its own internal contradictions but made its age-old mistake manifest: Their great talent for gathering large crowds into peaceful organized protests and their just as great inability to control the same crowds when things turn violent.
This is not an isolated event of 2011 – it has happened over and over in the 1930’s, 1950’s, 1970’s, 1980’s, 1990’s, 2000’s and now – with the felicitous consequence that whoever opposed reform inside and outside the government always found an excuse to delay on the ground of such regrettable events. The government on the other hand – and this means a lot more than the Al-Khalifa family alone – failed to understand the spirit of the times and acted out of a regional paranoia rather than local understanding.
That there were reasons to worry and act upon a revolutionary momentum that might be hijacked by resentment against the royalty, is justified and was soon enough proven right; that the proper manner to do it was destroying Pearl Roundabout and unleashing large-scale attacks against the civilian population was not justified and just as well, was soon enough proven tactically wrong.
Out of this conflict in which so much mischief was wrought on many innocent people and not only by the government, those involved acted out of selfish interest and forgot about the majority of Bahrainis who had been happy to join the protesters at the Pearl Roundabout but that were soon alienated by the way in which the opposition achieved unity: Through negative performance rejecting any type of compromise that would not meet all their demands immediately, and to which the government reacted with just as much stubbornness and immediacy.
Demands for human rights and calls for the overthrow of a regime fall under two different categories, and though they are obviously interrelated in the modern political scenario, they are not identical. The naïve belief that the success of the former will follow from the success of the latter has been proven wrong time and again.
When a regime is overthrown, the Leviathan is freed and then people realize that what they called ‘regime’ was only a symptom inside a corrupt system and not the system itself. Those who seize power through violence, noble revolutionaries are they may be, will turn into staunch conservatives the day after.
An attempt to overthrow the rulers of Bahrain is oblivious of many a thing: The fact that what they call Al-Khalifa is not only a ‘family’ but an extended tribal group with both strong and loose ties with tribes all over the region; that Sunnis were also part of the ethnic map of Bahrain before 1783, embodied in the Hawalas from Southern Iran that are part and parcel of Bahrain’s society with prominent families such as Kano, Khonji and Fakhro; that the claim of the Shia as the indigenous inhabitants of Bahrain is at best romantic for an island
occupied by every world power since the 3rd millennium BC.
There is an idealized conception of Bahrain before Al-Khalifa that might be a mythical reaction to the agony that many endured during their rule, but that not only the Shia suffered and that by no means all the Shia suffered. Not to mention the fact that defining Bahrain as such Shia indigenous land would be the equivalent of understanding it as an organic national state which it has never been. A successful overthrow would not mean the transition to a national state but rather the split of Bahrain into several ethnic and tribal fractions, all of them claiming an ancient right to the island.
Bahrain is the land of the Bahrainis, regardless of their origin or when they arrived in the island; such is the fate of cosmopolitan trade centers with highly fluctuating populations. The time has arrived to let go of the tribal masks – a call which I make to government and opposition alike – and to make a choice between tribe and state. In order to achieve this not only violence and aggression of the symbolic and physical type must come to an end immediately, but also a new era in politics must be inaugurated.
By a new era I do not mean yet constitutions, national charters, parliaments and the like, which are obviously premature in Bahrain. A new era here means an era of transparency where politics is not the affair of a few majlis negotiating behind the scenes; politics is a public affair and as such every step taken must be a matter of public knowledge.
There is much to be discussed, old resentments against new challenges, and insofar as the future of this society – young and old at the same time – is at stake here, the palliative care of secret talks is to no avail. The time has come for sincerity, and sincerity means also hearing a lot of things we do not like, we are not prepared to hear, things we have never dared to say.
No matter how forward Bahrain society has come in a great deal of respects – for example the education and awareness of the young – there remains much to be done and in spite of its complex textures, Bahrain still remains part and parcel of the region where it stands in which the winds of change are hard to come by. The process of gradual reform is the best – realistically speaking – that a tiny country dependent on foreign forces and resources can aspire to. This being said, this calls not only for intelligence on the part of the government to listen to the people but also for a wiser leadership among the opposition which is at present obviously lacking insofar as it entrenched into its internal affairs, no less than what they are opposing.
No matter how dark the distant and recent past has been, the success of a revolution or reform does not depend on the number of martyrs – a figure that has lost all value in the Arab world – but on the willingness of a people to realize that Bahrain is still on time to return to a path of mild reform in which the selfishness of the personal is replaced by something much more difficult: Shouting into the light out of the darkest times.