BY MAHMOOD ALMADEH
IMAGE COURTESY OF HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH
Growing up during the Arab Spring and participating in the democratic movement in Bahrain shaped my political thinking. Once a radical calling for democratic governance, I now realize that democracy could be worse for Bahrain than the current form of government — a benevolent dictatorship.
Protests engulfed the Middle East in 2011. People from all walks of life demanded political rights and economic reforms. Old and young took to the streets by the thousands, sparking an unprecedented movement in the region.
While some movements succeeded in causing an autocratic breakdown in their respective countries, Bahrain’s movement failed to shake the status quo.
This may have been Bahrain’s saving grace.
On the 14th of February 2011, several thousand protestors headed to Bahrain’s Pearl Roundabout — located at the heart of the capital Manama, a few streets away from the crucial financial district. They set up tents and protested peacefully; they faced bullets with bare chests in return.
Initially, the opposition unified behind demands for serious political and economic reforms. The security crackdown against protestors intensified, and a split began to form within the opposition. While some still called for reforms and dialogue with the ruling class, others demanded the complete removal of that class.
Nonetheless, other groups went even further and called for a republican Bahrain. They argued that a republic would ensure that no single faction controls decision-making in the country, give ordinary Bahrainis a real say in how the country is run, and eliminate the injustice and marginalization faced by many Bahrainis under the current regime.
In an alternate universe where Bahrain is a republic, one can easily imagine a dystopian outcome that would make the current benevolent dictatorship seem enticing. Here is why:
Bahrain is in a geopolitically crucial area, located between the two regional hegemons of the Middle East — Saudi Arabia and Iran — and host to the US Navy's fifth fleet. This geopolitical positioning makes Bahrain an area of interest to regional and international powers.
Saudi Arabia, a Sunni-majority country, has a vested interest in the stability of the Sunni ruling family in Bahrain. Whereas Iran, a Shia-majority country, banks its hopes on removing the royal family and installing a Shia-led ruling class in Bahrain.
Bahrain’s Shia population, who comprise 70% of Bahrainis, largely led the protests. If the uprising succeeded, Bahrain abandoning the Saudi-US alliance in favor of Iran was a real possibility.
The cynic would ask, ‘So what? You’re trading the influence of one dictatorship for another and gaining political rights in the process.’ However, it is not that simple.
Aligning with Iran carries a trade-off that has a genuine risk of backfiring on the initial goals of Bahrain’s democratic uprising. Instead of bolstering political rights, it could do the exact opposite. One needs only to look at Iraq and its current political, economic, and national security crises to derive lessons on why not to align with Iran.
Furthermore, Bahrain enjoys a special perk nowhere else found in the Middle East: it is socially liberal. The current benevolent dictatorship protects religious freedom, equality between the sexes, alcohol consumption, and the status of queer folk in the community. Without the ruling family’s enforcement of these protections, they’ll undoubtedly be lost or seriously damaged.
That is because those advocating a republican Bahrain — Isa Qassim and Hasan Mushaima — are also those most closely aligned with the Islamic theocracy in Iran. They’re, by every criterion, religious leaders first and political leaders second — modeled after Khomeini and Khamenei.
Their leadership paints a bleak future for Bahrain. A Bahrain that tramples women’s rights. A Bahrain that prosecutes people for their religious beliefs. A Bahrain where tolerance is non-existent.
Are these sacrifices worth the semblance of political rights only extended to some? I think not; there’s a better approach to doing things.
Those who advocated working within the system via reform and dialogue with the ruling elite were on the right track. They knew the dangers of being in Iran’s pockets and steered clear of plans involving that risk.
Looking back now, it’s clear that change is real and happening. It’s alien to what we dreamed of in 2011, but small safe steps are better than enormous, dangerous jumps when the fate of a nation hangs in the balance.