Casual observers of the 2011 popular uprisings in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia have compared them with the protests over the last year in Bahrain. They lump these movements into one category, and call them the "Arab Spring," suggesting they represent hope and progress. The so-called experts say acceding to the demands of the street is inevitable, and that the demonstrations show a longing for democracy in the Middle East.
It is an analytical error to confuse public demonstrations with democratic rule. What we generally call democracy involves far more than simply voting and allowing the majority to determine the policy and structure of the government. Voting against the current order without first establishing the rule of law leads to anarchy.
We are seeing this play out already in Libya and Egypt: the people rebelled against the old governments, and they now are faced with the task of deciding what kind of government they will have. It is very dangerous to make those decisions in a power vacuum.
Similarly, the Government of Bahrain faces continued protests by Shi’a protestors demanding increased political power from Sunni rulers and elites. But take a step back and it’s easy to see that Bahrain has become a new front in Iran’s proxy war on its neighbors.
Bahrain now joins Saudi Arabia as yet another target of Iran’s efforts to use Shi’ite ideology as a wedge to destabilize and possible overthrow governments in the region. It should not be lost on anyone that these governments are more closely allied with U.S. strategic and economic interests.
Iran’s proxy war is not new. Its modern roots go back to the Iranian revolution of 1979. Iran hopes to reverse centuries of Sunni dominance in the Islamic world, and this has been a good decade for them. They now control wholly or in part, directly or indirectly through surrogates such groups as Hezbollah, and the countries of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Iran and the Palestinian territories.
Until now they have been denied access to the Arabian Peninsula, but if they succeed in penetrating Bahrain, the Saudi Eastern Province cannot be far behind.
The stakes in Bahrain are too high to risk change without considering what may come next. Destabilizing Bahrain would offer Iran the opportunity to exert influence or outright control over a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
The U.S. will lose its valuable naval base, the headquarters of the 5th Fleet. The world’s greatest oil-producing region will become even more unstable. Bahrain will cease to be an island of calm, and an oasis of tolerance and economic, religious and cultural liberty, among the nations of the Gulf.
Unlike other nations involved in the so-called Arab Spring, all parties in Bahrain have an opportunity to avoid destabilization, by focusing on reform and restructuring. When the Crown Prince proposed dialogue with the protesters last year, some elements responded with a call to abolish the monarchy altogether. Others called for the death of the royal family. Hardliners within the government responded immediately, and the entire society is still reeling from the aftermath.
King Hamad condemned the violence and excesses of that crackdown, and pledged to pursue dialogue and reform. However, before the dialogue can succeed, there must be confidence-building measures on both sides: the Shi’a must feel secure in their homes and places of worship, and all Bahrainis must know that public order will prevail. The royal family must know they are safe. Naturalized citizens must feel safe from Shi’a attacks based on their ethnicity or religion.
Bahrainis have an opportunity to recognize that external influence is dangerous to their way of life, and then harness a sense of nationalist loyalty to help them overcome partisan or sectarian differences.
The government has pledged to guarantee the safety of all citizens, and to follow the prescriptions of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI). The opposition now must show their demands are limited and reasonable, and will not lead to calls for the death or banishment of the royal family.
The Al Khalifa have governed Bahrain for nearly 300 years, with justice and stability. King Hamad in particular has steered the country to unprecedented prosperity and liberty, and has 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 secure the rule of law, establish a foundation for dialogue, and preserve the monarchy, can Bahrain and other regional allies resist Iranian influence, and avoid the buyer’s remorse of those in Egypt and Libya.
Dr. Al Khalafalla is the President of the Bahrain American Council, a Washington, DC-based bilateral trade council.