By Khaled Alshawi
The year 2011 started off with the theme ‘History in the making’ for the Arab world, with demands for changes in government regimes across the region. But for Bahrain, a small island in the heart of the Arabian Gulf, protestors fought for more freedom, jobs, and equality. The protests broke out on February 14, just three days after Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s president, stepped down. The anti-government demonstrators successfully adopted a similar strategy to Egypt’s, gathering in one of the Kingdom’s most symbolic places. The country, which is a constitutional monarchy, has a total of 1.2 million people, but only half are Bahraini, who are mostly Shias. Bahrain’s version of its “Day of Rage” immediately caught the attention of the international media as the entire region was already boiling, and this changed everything.
Many of the major news agencies tried to draw parallels between other Arab nations and Bahrain but made several factual errors. For one, they referred to the protesters’ gathering place in Bahrain as Lulu Square when in reality it was always referred to as the Lulu Roundabout. This was to give a false impression that Bahrain’s protesters live under the same conditions as those in Egypt, who gathered in Tahrir Square, demanding a change in the political regime due to their bad living conditions. The media emphasized the Bahraini protesters’ struggle with strong inequality and favoritism of the supposedly rich Sunni minority over the mostly poor Shia majority, an idea that many people of Bahrain would go against.
Before I go on, I want to bring out some facts: Bahrain has performed exceptionally well in the past decade, and especially during the last financial crisis, maintaining modest growth and good economic performance in relative terms. Bahrain has a strong challenge that its neighboring countries do not face. It does not depend largely on its oil reserves and exports, and hence it emphasizes the need to diversify, empower, and educate. Human development indicators in Bahrain are much higher than the rest of the region, with greater adult literacy rates and education levels. The government wants ultimately to act as a regulator with a prosperous economy dependent on its exceptional financial services, foreign investments, and tourism with a highly skilled population, as documented in its year 2030 Economic Vision. Currently, public education and health care are provided for free. Bahrain does not tax its citizens and has no corporate income taxes for all businesses. Bahraini unemployment currently is at 3.4%, almost three times less than the United States, but the protestors demand more jobs.
Bahrain is one of the few countries in the Muslim world with a Shia majority, along with Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon. However, Bahrain is ruled entirely by Sunnis. Hence, the protests, according to news reporters, were a large result of an oppressed lower class Shia majority against a small Sunni elite who possess most of the country’s wealth and land. It was surprising to me to read articles with titles like Nicolas Kristof’s “Bahrain Pulls a Qaddafi,” “Is Bahrain following Apartheid?” and statements by prominent NY Times contributors such as Michael Slackman, who wrote, when describing the people who attended a huge pro-status government rally, that most attendees were Sunnis, and “the air was scented with perfume, and people drove expensive cars.” The reader would think that the people at the massive rally were the rich Sunnis, when in reality more than 300,000 attended, including many Shias as well. Most Sunnis and Shias want the ruling family to stay in control, but the media gave the impression that only Sunnis, or “elite,” do.
During the protests, things took a turn for the worst when innocent lives were lost after the police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protestors who began damaging the country’s goods. This led to a series of terrorizing acts by a small group of people, and the protesters did no longer ask for fairness, but for the fall of the regime, who, in their eyes, had killed their own people when they were supposed to protect them. Protesters switched signs from ‘We want more freedom’ to ‘Death to the ruling family.’ As a result, the angry protesters acted reprehensibly, as they attacked students in the main Bahraini university, stole weapons and hospital ambulances to help with their attacks, started fires, blocked the roads and streets, and divided the nation in two. They created many fake videos that went viral globally. When it was confirmed that these videos were fake, no one internationally reported it. At one point, I thought Bahrain was going to go into a civil war between the rich and poor, the well established and poorly established, but for the media, it was betweem Sunni and Shia. The outcome of this was more deaths of the police and protesters. The government lost control of its nation, and it is for this reason that the rest of the Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) offered to help, namely Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and UAE, who sent around 2,000 troops to restore peace on March 14, 2011, exactly one month after the protests broke out. When protests ended, the Lulu monument was destroyed, the country declared a three-month long martial law,. The kingdom is now on its road to recovery.
Two things worry me from this protest:
1. The media helped create a clearer division between Sunnis and Shias. It saddened me when I heard stories about some of my Sunni and Shia friends fighting in my high school, about Sunni parents asking their children to stay away from their Shia friends, and Shia parents asking theirs to stay away from their Sunni friends. This was never a problem in our nation until now, and the image of Bahrain was severely hindered on the global stage. This is something Bahrain cannot risk since it relies largely on tourism and foreign investments.
2. When I discuss the protests with people, they usually ask me if democracy is the best solution for Bahrain. At this point, I do not know. Bahrain has opened up more than the rest of the region, and promoted more freedom by releasing all its political prisoners, eliminating the emergency laws and courts, giving women the right to vote, and holding parliamentary selections in 2002 for the first time in 27 years. Despite the strong correlation between a country’s level of economic development and its likelihood of being a democracy, Bahrain plans to continue as a constitutional monarchy. When the GCC countries offered to help stop protesters from demanding political reforms in Bahrain, Iranian leaders such as Khomeini, and Hezbollah of Lebanon, all Shia, strongly went against the GCC rulers’ involvement, who are all Sunni. Iran opposed Saudi Arabia’s sending of troops and said that the anti-government demonstrators have the full right to express their concerns, something I find extremely ironic since Iran does not tolerate any protests or freedom of expression at all in its own country. A few Shia leaders who took active roles in the protests in Bahrain are with Iran and Hezbollah, who, as we all know, are not very fond of the Western world and their ideals. These people support actions such as the banning of alcohol in the nation as required by the Islamic Sharia law, and Bahrain allows the import and consumption of alcohol, which attracts many tourists from the countries surrounding it that do not have the liberalism Bahrain has. These people are also against the GCC’s close-knit ties with the United States. One particular case pertaining to Bahrain is with the King’s promise to support and keep the US fifth naval fleet for a longer period of time in the nation, as revealed by one of the few Wikileaks documents about Bahrain, and this did not come as welcoming news to Iran and their followers. Some even support Iran’s regime and its nuclear weapons development programs.
A complete political regime change in Bahrain is very risky today. Even though there are some in Bahrain who continue to feel discriminated against by their own government, I think it would be unwise to uproot the current political system. Rather, I believe the best option is to continue along the path of economic prosperity, while the government prepares to act more as a regulator, to provide people with more freedom, and to improve the country’s general standard of living. The government needs to establish a semiautonomous national security council and build agencies of horizontal accountability. Examples of this include independent and secular courts, nonpartisan electoral administrations, and citizen complaint committees. In the long run, the monarchy of Bahrain will have a reduced role, and its citizens will have more responsibilities, which will make them feel more included, leaving space for economic development under the current regime.