The West Likes Democracy for Some Arabs, But Not Others
The West Likes Democracy for Some Arabs, But Not Others
LONDON: Like Themis, the Greek goddess of justice, the Arab awakening has proved to be blindingly evenhanded – treating republican and royal rulers alike, making no distinction between Sunnis and Shias. The anti-authoritarian storm brewing in the Middle East has opened an ethnic and sectarian Pandora’s box, blurring the long-existing geopolitical divide and complicating ideological choices for Washington. The cases of protest in monarchical Bahrain and republican Syria where the rulers do not share the religious sect of the majority illustrate the dilemma for Western powers.
For different reasons these countries mean much to Washington. Manama, capital of Bahrain, has been the headquarters of the US Fifth Fleet, consisting of 30 warships, since 1996 – a constraint for the US State Department when commenting on the repression of peaceful demonstrations in the Sunni-ruled state. And given its location and Arab ethnicity, Syria is the lynchpin of Shia Iran’s ties with the militant Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine, all of import for American policymakers.
The Arab upheaval has pushed to the fore certain contradictions in the established order that had hitherto remained suppressed or subdued. In Bahrain, ruled by the al Khalifa dynasty since 1820, the population is 70 percent Shia, but King Hamad ibn Isa II al Khalifa is Sunni. This dichotomy is accentuated as the government has excluded Shias from its security and intelligence services while conferring Bahraini citizenship on Sunni South Asian workers before recruiting them into these agencies.
In Syria the population is 68 percent Sunni, but the republic’s presidents since 1970 – Hafiz Assad and son Bashar – are Alawis, a sub-sect within Shia Islam. The ruling Arab Baath Socialist Party, being secular and pan-Arabist, has endeavored to play down religious differences. Yet the reality is that Alawis, forming only 14 percent of the population, occupy top positions in the military, police and intelligence services. Little wonder that the Sunni majority feels resentful.
Unlike other monarchies in the Arabian Peninsula, Bahrain has a long history of agitation for a representative government. After the accession of Shaikh Isa II al Khalifa in 1961, there were demonstrations for political reform. A decade of oppositional agitation led to a constitution providing an elected parliament in 1973. But in 1975, when the parliament refused to ratify the government-sponsored State Security Law, sanctifying the detention of a suspect for up to three years without charges, the ruler dissolved the legislature and suspended the constitution.
The 1979 Islamic Revolution in the predominantly Shia Iran, which overthrew the pro-Western, secular shah, emboldened Shias in Bahrain. In 1981, when the opposition demanded that Bahrain be declared an Islamic republic, Shaikh Isa II acted with a heavy hand. In January 1992 his government arrested 60 people, most Bahrainis, alleging they plotted a coup, guided by expelled Shia leader Sayed Hadi al Modaressi, then living in Iran.
These events added urgency to the plan for constructing a causeway to connect the tiny island of Bahrain, measuring 560 square kilometers, to Saudi Arabia. Completed in 1986, this 16-mile long link turned the State of Bahrain, an archipelago, literally into an appendage of the Saudi kingdom.
The influence of Saudi Arabia in Manama, already high, expanded. As followers of the puritanical Wahhabi sub-sect within Sunni Islam, the Saudi royal family openly discriminates against Shias. The Shias, 10 percent of the national population, are concentrated in the oil-rich Eastern Province, where they form one-third of the population. So the emergence of a popularly elected Shia government in Manama functioning under a constitutional monarch is an anathema to the autocratic House of Saud. It fears that such an entity would encourage Saudi Shias to demand a representative government in the Eastern Province.
Unsurprisingly, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia urged the White House to tone down criticism of the Bahraini government for violent suppression of peaceful protestors, who demand abolition of the fully nominated upper house of the parliament with veto powers and the dismissal of hardliner Prime Minister Khalifah ibn Salman al Khalifah, in office for the past 40 years. Abdullah earlier warned the Obama administration of the perils of abandoning long-term allies like Hosni Mubarak or risk raising Iran’s influence in the Arab world.
Between 14 February, the first day of the protest and mid-April, Bahraini security forces, bolstered by 1,200 Saudi troops, had killed 31 protestors and jailed more than 600 citizens, including some Sunnis.
Events in Bahrain led to sympathy demonstrations by Shias not only in Iran but also Iraq. The Bahraini regime accuses the Iranian regime of instigating the protest movement without providing credible evidence.
Nonethless, Iran figures prominently in the regional alliance against the US-Israel nexus. Tehran has allied with Damascus since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 when Hafiz Assad was Syria’s president. With Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, he shared anti-imperialism and an affinity with Shia Islam.
His son Bashar, president since 2000, has continued the long-established policy of allowing radical secular Palestinian parties as well as Hamas to maintain headquarters in Damascus.
The two-month-old Arab upheaval originating in Tunisia in mid-December, resulting in the resignations of the pro-American Tunisian and Egyptian presidents, left Syria unperturbed. Bashar Assad offered a rationale. His regime was the epitome of the “ideology, belief and cause” for Arabs and Syrians – engaged in a struggle against Israel and America. It possessed “patriotic legitimacy” that others in the Arab world lacked.
With street protests swelling since mid-March, Bashar Assad turned to repression, the tactic used by his father against Sunni militants of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s. But when demonstrations continued to spread – with demands for lifting the 48-year emergency law, releasing political prisoners, ending pervasive corruption – he managed to rally his supporters in the streets of many cities. Earlier his government had banished foreign journalists and disrupted social networks on the internet.
Assad gained breathing space from the sectarian and ethnic divide that prevents the anti-regime opposition from coalescing and staging an uprising. That allowed him to reverse course. After claiming in his 30 March speech that reforms were already in motion for Syria, he sacked his cabinet. And on 19 April he lifted the emergency law and set the scene for allowing peaceful public meetings. Whether these measures will be sufficient to end protests remains to be seen.
But, unlike in Bahrain, no external force has been at work in Syria. Unconfirmed reports suggest that the Iranian government had lent Assad expert advice as to how to cope with massive demonstrations – an unprecedented task for Syria’s security forces.
Analysts agree that the collapse of the Assad regime in Syria would radically alter geopolitics of the Middle East. But any resulting rejoicing in Israel and the US would quickly give way to foreboding as their leaders try to figure out how to deal with a Sunni Islamist regime that would most likely follow the rule of the secular Baathist Party. And since, for all practical purposes, Bahrain is an extension of Saudi Arabia, it’s hard to see Shaikh Hamad ibn Isa II accepting the role of a constitutional monarch. At most he might agree to replace his hard-line prime minister with the young moderate Crown Prince Salman ibn Hamad al Khalifah. That might pacify the Shias and satisfy Washington.