Bahrain: a different wind of change

Published on February 23, 2011   ·   No Comments

Bahrain’s unrest may well represent the tip in the domino effect, but its power relations are very different from those of Egypt and Tunisia – as a result, the outcome of this ‘revolution’ may prove difficult to predict.
O King
We are your flocks, of whom you boast to the nations.
We are fed up with this glory.
(Qassim Haddad, “Sin 3,” tr. Bassam K. Frangieh)

To those of us trying desperately to catch up with events in the Middle East- as so many of us are – it has probably become apparent that Bahrain is not Egypt, even if the protesters at Lulu roundabout were trying to make it into Bahrain’s Tahrir square. Last night, the Bahrain military used tanks and riot police to drive the assembled protesters away, killing at least six and leaving many others wounded or unaccounted for.

Protesters have reportedly relocated to Salmaniya hospital where their dead and wounded were taken.

Bahrain’s Foreign Minister claimed that this “police action” was necessary to pull Bahrain
back from the “brink of a sectarian abyss,” though in videos like this one, “police action” seems indistinguishable from an infantry charge to me. And as Toby Jones at Jadaliyya writes, last night’s attack was only an escalation of the state’s violent response to the first few days of protest:

Bahraini security murdered two people in attacks on Monday and Tuesday, using live fire on unarmed demonstrators. The news out of Manama early Thursday morning is that things are quickly deteriorating further.
Security forces attacked hundreds of sleeping Bahrainis who decided to camp out over night in what some have taken to calling Martyr’s Square. The night-time raid was depraved, an ambush launched out of the shadows and in the weary hours of the early morning on unsuspecting victims, a gathering that included children. Although the country’s king offered condolences for the loss of life on Monday and Tuesday, it is clear with Thursday’s savage assault that he has chosen the path violent and cowardly confrontation.

The analogy is tempting, though. In the Independent, Robert Fisk framed the violence as the continuation of a pattern that began in Tunisia and Egypt, arguing that “the state security police who prop up the power of the Arab world’s autocrats have used the same hopeless tactics of savagery to crush demonstrators in Sanaa, Bahrain and Algiers as the Tunisian and Egyptian dictators tried so vainly to employ against their own pro-democracy protesters.” This allows him to end on an optimistic note:

Mubarak really thought on Thursday night that the people would suffer another five months of his rule. Ben Ali apparently thought much the same. What all this proves is that the dictators of the Middle East are infinitely more stupid, more vicious, more vain, more arrogant, more ridiculous than even their own people realised.

But I’m not sure. As Jones points out, for example, the military is quite unlikely to step in on the side of the protesters:

Where the Tunisian and Egyptian armies proved the ultimate power brokers in the revolutions there, there is no military to save the day in Bahrain. The means of violence are wholly controlled by the state and its security forces. The latter are thoroughly beholden to the royal family and not just willing, but eager to do its bidding. Where the Egyptian army was viewed by many Egyptians as a reflection of Egyptian society, the Bahraini domestic security apparatus is composed almost entirely of foreign mercenaries brought in to serve and destroy precisely because they have no local sympathies. There is no counterpart to the domestic security force, no alternative center of power that can challenge it or its masters. It has no rival. Bahrainis will have to endure the worst the police can mete out in order to carry the day.

To understand why this is so, some history is helpful. Egypt and Bahrain are very different in almost every way, of course, but one important difference is the historical trajectory of the respective states. While Mubarak and Sadat ruled over an the Egypt that Nasser built after the 1952 revolution – a unified state with broad and deep popular support – the regime in Bahrain now under siege has always been something very different. It began as a conquest state, and the ruling dynasty — the Al-Khalifa family — not only dates its origins (and thus, its political legitimacy) back to the 1783 conquest by Sunni invaders from the Arabian peninsula, but continued to officially commemorate that conquest as a way of instantiating continuing (de facto) Sunni rule over the Shi’ite majority. As Abdulhadi Khalaf wrote in 1998:

The 1783 conquest has become an occasion to commemorate in schoolbooks and official historical accounts. Conquest-related individuals and events will be celebrated in names given to public buildings and streets, in radio and television programmes, through poetry and song contests, as well as through official festivals and commemorations. In 1983, al-Khalifa celebrated the bi-centennial of the Conquest. All opposition groups condemned the highly bizarre commemorations, modelled after the USA bi-centennial, which were not joined by the Shia community. It has been an elaborate and extravagant affair that included festivals and academic symposia. Those ill-advised commemorations confirmed to many some of the worse charges against the ruling family. The most relevant of these, is the allegation that it continues to act as a conqueror that legitimates its rule by right of conquest.

I am aware that tribalism and tribal conquest are, obviously, not, in themselves, hinders to state building. Several examples from the region itself indicate that in spite of previous tribal feuds, tribal alliances and allegiances became possible and have actually encouraged moves towards state building. However, the al-Khalifa failure to assimilate within its subject population has lead them to consistently undermine every effort that could contribute to state- and nation building.

The most superficial reading of events in Bahrain will, of course, take note of ‘sectarian tensions‘. And one should take note of this: because the Sunni minority are also the country’s economic and political elite – and the Shi’ite majority are poorly represented politically and economically disenfranchised – one cannot talk about the politics of class or democratization without talking about the sectarian tensions through which they are lived.

Still, it would be wrong to conclude that because the Sunni ruling elite are a minority of the population, that therefore the Shi’ites are the real Bahraini’s. No such simplification can be anything but pernicious. For one thing, Shi’ites aren’t a majority of the country’s population either: like other Gulf states, foreign nationals make up a huge proportion of the total population (over half). But more than that, Bahrain is simply a very diverse place, in every sense. Which is why it’s better not to try to define who’s a real Bahraini at all.

But as Abdulhadi Khalaf argues, the state’s origin in (and continued celebration of) its settler-conqueror history seems to have shaped both the state’s attitude towards its subjects and the accompanying politics of dissent:

…folk tales, to this day, give vivid Shia peasants’ accounts of their suffering at the hands of the al-Khalifa fiefs, their slaves, retainers and wazirs. Folk tales also tell, in so many revised versions, the meanings of being a vanquished. These tales are retrieved and reconstructed with appropriate dramatic elaboration, addition and deletion, and are used as instruments for ethnic mobilisation. Similar keen imagination has produced counter folk tales elaborating the heroics of the conquistadors and how they established their presence and rule. Ethnicity has been gradually entrenched as the dominant foundation for social organisation and contention.

If we see Bahrain as simply a counter in a great game played between the US and Iran – as just one of the many gulf states in the region caught between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’a Iran – we will miss the ways Bahrain’s historical development is particular to Bahrain. As Khalaf distinguishes, for example:

…In similarity with many chiefs of other tribal orders in other parts of the Arabian side of the Gulf, the al-Khalifa signed, since the beginning of 19th century a series of agreements with Britain. These agreements recognised Pax Britannica on the one hand and the established tribal political formations, regimes, on the other.

However, unlike other the tribal regimes sanctioned by Britain, the al-Khalifa failed to assimilate within its subject population as did, for example, al-Sabah in Kuwait, al-Thani in Qatar and al- Qawassim in Ras al-Khaimah and Sharja. And, unlike these political formations, Bahrain did not develop into becoming a unified political entity nor did the Bahrainis develop into becoming a single people. Also, unlike other tribal political formations in the region, the al-Khalifas continue to jealously guard their identity/image as ’settlers- rulers’. However, their ‘tribal’ backgrounds and identity have not been static. To the dismay among their ‘own pure bloods’, and some of their ‘anti-tribal’ opponents, al-Khalifa tribal credentials have repeatedly been revised, with several additions and deletions, to suit vagaries of local and regional politics.

This, in other words, is what “sect” means in Bahrain (rather than what it means when Bahrain is used to reflect the regional meaning of Shi’a and Sunni):

As settlers-conquerors, [al-Khalifa] rulership did not depend on the support, material, political or otherwise, of their subjects. As they relied on force to extract wealth, they continue to trumpet the fact that theirs is a rule based on right of conquest. This is another major difference between al-Khalifa’s and other non-conquistador tribal regimes in the region.

Which is not to say that regional politics don’t intrude. But it seems important to focus in — as Khalaf does – on the ways a national elite uses sectarian divisions to establish its position within the country, rather than simply seeing it as a pure proxy for external geopolitics. All the more so because regional geopolitics can be (and are) used by that national elite to keep itself in power.

A US State Department cable setting the scene for General Petreus concludes by pronouncing that:

As the smallest Gulf state, Bahrain has historically needed closer security ties with a western patron than any of its neighbors. As a result, the U.S. Navy has had a presence here since the closing days of the second world war.

But, of course, by “Bahrain” what the writer of the cable really means is the al-Khalifa dynasty. Instead of looking to domestic bases of power – on the spectrum between patrimonial co-option and democratic consent – the ruling elite has for centuries maintained its position by strategic alliances with foreign powers, beginning with the British Empire and ending with the American:

Since 1869, ’special relations’ with Britain provided the regime with a decisive source of legitimacy…For more than a century, but especially since discovery of oil, British might, including military force, was ready at hand to rescue al-Khalifa from attacks its opponents whether these were tribal, confessional, or nationalists.

[But] pre-eminence of external sources of legitimacy of power, over internal ones, persisted even after Bahrain gained its independence and ended the treaty of ’special relations’ with Britain in 1971. Gradually, Britain’s role was taken over by USA whose Fifth Fleet’s HQ is located in Bahrain. Additional external reserve sources of power and of legitimacy of power are provided by sister regimes, members of the Gulf Co-operation Council.

This is what Jean-Francois Bayart called the “extraversion” of the state, in work on Africa (here or here) that has some useful resonance here. Instead of looking inward and seeking to rule a single people (that has been united by either force or consent), Bayart argued that the extraverted state looks primarily outward, orienting itself towards foreign powers who will maintain it in its position of governance over a divided populace.

One result of this orientation is that the state has no particular incentive to try to unite the nation as a single population. In fact, to put it even more strongly than that, a ruling elite that does not derive its legitimacy from its claim to represent ‘the nation’ – that thinks of itself as a conquistador elite – will view the very idea of ‘the nation’ as a threat to its legitimacy, as inded it is. And so the state will have much less of a disincentive to use violent force in suppressing popular revolt: its power-base is external, so it has much less to lose by violently repressing the people it rules over.

That’s the poli-sci theory, anyway. How well does it apply here? After all, Bahrain has undergone significant reforms in the last ten years; when the old Emir died, his son took over and announced sweeping reforms (though this 2005 International Crisis Group report is pessimistic at best). And I – like most Western observers – am not in a position to do more than speculate.

But looking at Bahrain through this lens helps a Western viewer make sense of the way, for example, the Army serves not as “representative of the nation” (as in Egypt) but as a private mercenary force. As blogger Chan’ad Bahraini wrote about the Bahrain security apparatus in 2006, for example:

I can’t think of any way to describe the naturalised employees of the defence and interior ministries other than as mercenaries. These people have been hired from far away lands to protect the interests of the ruling regime by threatening or administering violence on vast sections of the population. They have been hired and naturalized specifically because they hold no family or cultural ties with other Bahrainis, making them entirely loyal to their paymasters. Although they work in organizations with titles such as “Public Security”, they are little more than private organizations serving certain individuals within the Al Khalifa ruling family. (This confusion between public private is all too common in Bahrain). If they are not mercenaries, then I don’t know what is.

The history of the mercenaries in Bahrain goes back to the mid-seventies, when the dissolution of parliament and implementation of the state security law coincided with the oil boom set off by the 1973 oil crisis. (Although the British introduced to Bahrain the idea of manning the police with foreigners long before, it wasn’t until the mid-seventies that mercenaries on such a massive scale were hired). In 1975, the then ruler, Shaikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa dissolved the newly independent state’s first parliament. In order prevent any more civil unrest (a common occurrence in the prior decades) the state’s security apparatus had to be expanded and enhanced. Lucky for the regime, oil prices and revenues were at record highs, so this could be done. Spending on defence and internal security increased from US$22.5 million in 1974, to US$107.4 million in 1978, to US$287 million in 1983 (Khalaf, 1985).

The personnel required to man the security apparatus could not be recruited from within Bahrain because the regime was not willing to trust large sections of the population (since 1980, Shias have not been allowed to work in the defence or interior ministries), and also, presumably, because most Bahrainis did not like the idea of beating up their countrymen. The foot soldiers were hired en masse mostly from Jordan, Pakistan (particularly Baluchis) and Yemen. There were also a number of British employees with specific skills working for the Security Intelligence Service, the most notorious of them being Col. Ian Henderson.

It shouldn’t be surprising then that these mercenaries are despised by much of the local population. This is not only because they represent the regime and their use of violence, but also because they have benefited from naturalisation, employment, housing, health and other perks, things that sections of the local population have been actively denied by the regime. This makes them “the perfect enemy,” as a friend recently described them to me, and is why they are specifically targetted whenever there is violent unrest.

Since the Bahraini state feeds off of both sectarian violence and the US’s fear of Iran, it’s unsurprising that the protesters have so clearly worked to enunciate their demands in the language of non-sectarian democracy:

  • We want a genuine political life in which the people alone are the source of powers and legislation.
  • We want a constitution drawn up by the people, and agreed upon, which is the arbitrator and judge in the relationship of the ruler to the ruled.
  • We want genuine and fair elections based on fair foundations and the distribution of constituencies in which the vote of every individual Bahraini is equal.
  • We want genuine representation, without the accusation of treason whenever we go out to demand our rights.
  • […]

  • We want the police to “serve the people”, and we want the army to be of the people.
  • This is truly what we want; we do not want to overthrow the regime, as many imagine, and we do not want to gain control of the government, we do not want chairs and seats here or there. We want to be a people living with dignity and rights.

By contrast, Bahrain’s state television this morning reportedly showed images of swords – which they claimed were confiscated from protesters – and framed them as representing the broader threat of Shi’a sectarianism:

A spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, for example, pointed to these “swords and weapons and flags of Hezbollah” (quote), in a stroke transforming the protesters into foreign invaders – agents provocateurs of an international Shia militant group – so as to better legitimize the unleashing of the state’s arsenal against them. It even provides a touch of Orientalist theater for the West (something the Mubarak regime tried as well).

It is clear who they are aiming this theater towards. The State Department’s diplomatic cables on Bahrain employ the same framing, over and over again picturing the ruling dynasty as a kind of garrison holding the line against “predatory” Shi’ite powers. In this cable from 2008, for example, the entirety of Bahrain’s two centuries of al-Khalifa rule as a campaign against Persia/Iran:

The Sunni al-Khalifa family took Bahrain in 1783 from another Arab clan that acknowledged Persian overlordship. As the British were leaving Bahrain in 1971, the last Shah of Iran asserted, then withdrew, a claim of sovereignty over the country. After the Islamic revolution in Iran, the clerical regime has from time to-time publicly re-asserted these claims during exercises in nationalist muscle-flexing.

But the US alliance with a minority elite is described in a quite revealing way:

The Sunni ruling family of tiny, Shi’a-majority Bahrain have long recognized that they needed outsiders – first the British, then the United States – to protect them from predatory neighbors, Iran foremost among them. Both Shahs and Ayatollahs have asserted claims to sovereignty over Bahrain from time to time. While keeping close to their American protectors, Bahrain’s rulers seek to avoid provoking Iran unnecessarily, and keep channels of communication with Iranian leaders open.

Note how one group of invaders (the al-Khalifa dynasty) requires the aid of another foreign power (Britain, then the US) to protect “Bahrain” from an Iran who is a threat precisely because “Shi’a-majority Bahrain” is seen to desire the alliance.

Who, then, is being protected? I don’t mean to deny that Iran has an interest in what is happening in Bahrain, of course, or that (Sunni) states like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (and the US) have a lot to lose if the al-Khalifa monarchy falls. Juan Cole can tell you better than I can what is at stake in that regard. And certainly “sectarian tensions” are real, and a lot more complicated than this (not least because they’re also a way of talking about class wiothout admitting it). But let us look at what disappears if we regard these events through that lens, as the state department seems to, as Bahrain’s Foreign Minister wants us to, and as the New York Times certainly did on Tuesday. Or, rather, let us hear it: the voice of popular protest, chanting slogans like “Not Sunni, Nor Shia, but Bahraini.

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Photo Credits: Flickr CC malyousif, Al Jazeera English, Chan’ad and yFrog SultanAlQassemi

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