Hijacked by Elites: Bahrain’s Protests

Bahrain Protests
By Ramee Mossa 

On 14 February 2011, the pro-democracy Arab protest movement spread to the tiny Gulf Kingdom of Bahrain. While the first protests there began at a modest pace, the heavy handed military tactics of the government resulted in an explosion in the size and ferocity of the popular demonstrations which finally gained worldwide media attention.

After early mishaps, Bahrain’s King Hamad Ibn Isa Al Khalifa accommodated the protesters by withdrawing police forces from the Pearl Roundabout and offering the opposition movement a national dialogue for reform. The King has since tried to alter the public’s perception of the protests, using his security forces and public discourse to effectively taint the original message and hijack the protests.

By 15 March, however, the King had lost his patience with the protesters and called on the support of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which is composed of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Oman, to help quell what had now become a revolution in all but name. The King announced a three month long state of emergency and authorised  the armed forces to take all appropriate measures to “protect the country and its citizens”. Over one thousand Saudi troops and half as many UAE policemen answered the King’s call.

In what the opposition has called an invasion, the security forces imposed a severe and brutal crackdown on the Bahraini protesters and enforced a 4pm to 4am curfew. The Pearl Roundabout and its monument, which served as the location and symbol of the protest movement in Bahrain, were promptly destroyed. However, while the King and his allies successfully dispersed the protesters, their actions may very well be making the political situation worse in Bahrain and the greater Middle East.

The foreign troops of the GCC are playing a crucial role in uniting independent national movements along religious lines. Since a majority of protesters are clearly Shia, the crackdown has been seen as a Sunni attack against the Shia population of Bahrain. Leaders in Iran and Iraq were quick to condemn the Bahraini government. Iran had withdrawn its ambassador to Bahrain, while it summoned the Bahraini ambassador in Tehran to officially protest the crackdown on Bahraini civilians.

The Iranian government has also been vocal in condemning the Bahraini government’s use of violence. Similarly, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki has spoken out against Bahrain’s actions. Shia clerics such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Moqtada al-Sadr and Basheer Al-Najafi have all condemned the heavy handed tactics. According to Al-Jazeera, Hezbollah’s spiritual leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, has also lashed out at the Bahraini government for its treatment of its Shia citizens. More worryingly, Shia regions of Iraq and Saudi Arabia have also begun protesting against what they see as a Sunni crackdown on Bahrain’s Shia population.

The King, on the other hand, is taking advantage of these accusations by making up stories of treachery and foreign plots. On 21 March, the King told media outlets that “the fomented subversive plot against security and stability” had been foiled thanks to the intervention of the GCC. It is widely suspected that he was referring to the main Shia power in the Middle East, Iran. The Bahraini police have also detained five Lebanese nationals for allegedly contacting certain “parties” in Lebanon, a thinly disguised reference to Hezbollah. Additionally, the two main Bahraini airlines have been ordered to halt all flights to Iran, Iraq and Lebanon. Though the official justification for this has been attributed to “security concerns”, the real reason is likely that the Bahraini government is attempting to maintain distance between its Shia majority and other Shia populations in the Middle East.

The King is clearly attempting to exaggerate the line which already exists between Shia and Sunni Muslims in the Middle East. The King has good reasons for his actions. By emphasising the struggle between his Sunni government and an encroaching Shia Iran, he is able to legitimise an otherwise illegitimate monarchy. The King is fully aware that if the power struggle is seen as a Shia/Sunni struggle for dominance, the Saudis and the Americans would be more likely to act in favour of a crackdown, offering support for his oppressive rule. If the struggle is seen as one of democracy against an absolute monarchy however, his western support may be undermined as it has been in Libya. While the strategy is thinly veiled, it has been reinforced by Iranian, Iraqi and Lebanese Shia leaders.

What is occurring in Bahrain has already exploded into a regional battle with wide ranging political fallout. In the first place, the crackdown has clearly worked in favour of Bahrain’s monarchy. Not only has the protest movement been successfully dispersed and subdued, but the voices of protesters are increasingly ignored by the popular media. Over the course of the couple of weeks that have followed the Bahrain Massacre, the media has refocused its attention to the King’s speeches and the politically motivated statements of Shia leaders in Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon. Little attention is being paid to the criminal actions of the Bahraini security forces as they arrest opposition leaders and execute protesters point-blank on Manama’s streets.

Further, the amount of media attention given to the King’s nonsensical comments about foreign spies and agitators, and the emphasis on rhetoric by Shia leaders across the Middle East dwarfs the coverage given to the hundreds of thousands of individuals who took part in the protest movements in Bahrain. This focus on elitist rhetoric is robbing the Bahraini people of their right to exist as equal human beings, worthy of democracy and desiring of autonomy. By blaming the protest on “outside agitators”, the King fails to give legitimacy to the voices of his own people, implying that his people are not capable of independent thought and action, treating them as pawns of Iran or Hezbollah.

Finally, the last set of consequences of the GCC’s invasion of Bahrain will be more international in scope. The Bahrain protests are no longer a national struggle. Just as the situation in Libya has been internationalised, Bahrain has been hijacked by political and religious elites into a regionalised struggle for dominance. The people’s message, a mixture of Shia and Sunni citizens of Bahrain, was at the very root a call for improved living conditions and greater political representation.

Their hijacked message, however, has now been misrepresented as a struggle over regional hegemony. It has morphed into a competition over influence pitting Iran and Shia states against Saudi Arabia and Sunni States. The GCC actions in Bahrain, combined with elitist discourse, have brought back the Sunni-Shia divide which recently dragged Iraq into years of civil war. The repercussions of the Bahraini situation could very well be the trigger which officially divides the Middle East along religious lines as the republican and Shia north further distances itself from the Sunni monarchies of the south. 


15 April 2011


Related Articles:

Tallha Abdulrazaq, Bahrain: A New Front in the Battle between Sunni and Shia Muslims

Arthur Hayes, Ahmadinejad's Power Grows as New Cold War Chills the Persian Gulf