Al Khalafalla

Al Khalafalla

Bahrain, Constitutions, Featured, Islamist Politics, Parliaments, Political Parties, Political Reform, Religious Freedom

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Casual observers of last year’s changes in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia have compared those popular uprisings with the protests that have taken place over the last year in Bahrain. Many have lumped all of these movements into one category, and called them the Arab Spring, indicating hope and resurgence. They have characterized this movement of acceding to the demands of the people in the streets as inevitable, and have suggested that the demonstrations are the final efflorescence of a longing for democracy in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, nothing could be farther from the truth. First, it is an analytical error to confuse public demonstrations with democratic rule. This was a principle well understood by the founders of the United States, who wrote articles encouraging the colonists to adopt self-rule instead of being ruled by the monarchy, and had to address concerns about mob rule.

Second, what we generally call democracy involves far more than simply voting and allowing the majority’s voice to determine all policy and even the structure of the government. It is not enough to vote against the current order, as we have seen in the countries mentioned above. There must be an order in place that voters are supporting, or the old order is replaced by a vacuum of power.

The government of Bahrain faces continued protests from several factions, all demanding an increase in rights and political power.

Unfortunately, according to the common view of the situation, protesting groups and the rest of society break down along sectarian lines: Shiite protesters are demanding more political power from Sunni rulers and elites. This perception has hardened into a new reality as regional powers have begun to intervene and are attempting to wage a proxy war between Iran, the mother of Shia ideology and governance, and Saudi Arabia, the mother of Sunni ideology and governance. Until now, Iran has been denied access to the Arabian Peninsula, but if they succeed in penetrating Bahrain, the Saudi Eastern Province cannot be far behind.

The potential consequences of the outcome in Bahrain are too severe to take chances on a rapid change without consideration for what may come after it. If Bahrain is destabilized, then Iran has an opportunity exert influence – or perhaps seize outright control -- over a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The U.S. would then lose its valuable naval base, which is the headquarters to the 5th Fleet. If residents of the Saudi Eastern Province become restive, the world’s greatest oil-producing region will become unstable.

Indeed, the Gulf states consider this such a serious threat that they have reopened the long-tabled notion of the GCC Union. The threat to Bahrain and islands of the United Arab Emirates has breathed new life into the idea. When members of the Iran’s Shura Council suggest that Bahrain is part of Iran, the GCC states look for ways to counter the threat to ensure that they will not become fragmented. They want to ensure a stronger hand in international negotiations with all parties, not just with Iran. The smaller states feel a need to ensure that the American security guarantee is honored for the benefit of all member states.

All parties in Bahrain have an opportunity to avoid destabilization by changing the focus from rejection, rebellion, and replacement to reform and restructuring. Before we can have a conversation about reform, however, the opposition must understand that there is a stopping point. They must know the limits of their demands.  When the Crown Prince first initiated dialogue with the protesters last year, some elements responded by a call to abolish the monarchy altogether, while others called for the death of the royal family. The hard liners within the government responded immediately, and all of Bahrain is still reeling from the aftermath of that exchange.

The King of Bahrain has since condemned the violence and excesses of that crackdown and pledged to pursue a path of dialogue and reform. There must be some preconditions set before the dialogue can succeed and confidence-building measures on both sides: the Shiites must feel secure in their homes and places of worship, and all Bahrainis must feel confident that public order will not be disturbed by protests or violence. The royal family must feel sure that they are not under attack. Naturalized citizens must feel safe from Shiite attacks based on their ethnicity, religion, or country of origin. All Bahrainis must feel that Bahrain is their home, their country, and feel the loyalty to country that will overcome partisan or sectarian differences.

Most importantly, there must be a rule of law that governs firmly and fairly. There can be no dialogue with a mob on one side, or with hard liners on the other. The government has pledged to guarantee the safety of all citizens, and to follow the prescriptions laid out in the Bassiouni report issued by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI). The opposition now must guarantee to the government that there will be an end to their demands; that one demand will not lead to a snowball effect, which ends up in calls for the death or banishment of the royal family.

The Al Khalifa family has governed Bahrain for nearly 300 years with justice and stability. In particular, King Hamad steered the country to unprecedented prosperity and liberty, and provided alternative means of generating income, so that when the oil and gas are no longer available, there will still be an independent Bahraini economy. Only by working together to institute the rule of law, to establish a foundation for dialogue, and to preserve the monarchy in the bargain, can Bahrainis avoid the buyer’s remorse of Egypt and Libya.

Dr. Khalafalla is the President of the Bahrain American council, a Washington, DC-based bilateral trade council.